ACLU, Americans United Applaud Colorado Supreme Court Decision Striking Down Voucher Program Funding Religious Schools

Douglas County ‘Scholarship’ Scheme Is Unconstitutional, Civil Liberties Groups Say

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado applaud a decision by the Colorado Supreme Court that struck down a Douglas County school voucher program that had allowed taxpayer dollars to flow directly to religious schools.

In a decision this morning in Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District, Colorado’s highest court ruled that the county’s so-called “Choice Scholarship Pilot Program” violates the Colorado Constitution because it improperly diverts public funds to private, religious schools. Citing Article IX, Section 7 of the state Constitution, the court explained, “[T]his stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear:  A school district may not aid religious schools. Yet aiding religious schools is exactly what the [voucher program] does.”

“It is unconstitutional to bankroll religious schools with public funds,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “But that is precisely what would have happened in Douglas County had the Colorado Supreme Court ruled otherwise.”

“Parents are free to send their children to private religious schools if they wish, but the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed today that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein.

Counsel for Petitioners, Matt Douglas, said that: “The court made clear that this type of program violates the plain language of the Colorado Constitution, and rejected the argument that temporarily passing the money through the hands of parents could avoid this specific prohibition.”

The program provided 500 students with vouchers worth about $4,600, which could be spent on tuition at religious and other private schools. In order to obtain per-pupil educational funds from the state, Douglas County classified these children as “public school students” who attended a charter school that did not actually exist.

In reality, the voucher money was spent at district-approved “Private School Partners,” a collection of private schools. As of the filing of the lawsuit, 16 of the 23 approved Private School Partners were sectarian. The court found that this violated the “broad, unequivocal language forbidding the State from using public money to fund religious schools.”

“The Colorado Constitution provides very strong safeguards for the separation of church and state, and today’s decision preserves and honors those protections,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

In 2011, the civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit on behalf of parents, clergy and taxpayers. A lower court decided in their favor, but in 2013 the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the program.

Plaintiffs were represented by Douglas, Timothy R. Macdonald, and Michelle K. Albert of Arnold & Porter LLP; Alex J. Luchenitser and Ayesha N. Khan of Americans United; Weaver and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; and Silverstein and Sara Rich of the ACLU of Colorado.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.