Americans United, Allies Ask Oklahoma Supreme Court To Strike Down School Voucher Program

Sooner State Constitution Does Not Allow For Direct Taxpayer Aid To Religious Schools, Say Civil Liberties Groups

An Oklahoma school voucher program violates the state constitution because it allows public funds to flow directly to religious institutions, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

In a friend-of-the court brief filed yesterday with the Oklahoma Supreme Court by Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Oklahoma, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, the civil liberties groups assert that the Oklahoma Constitution’s “No Aid Clause” strictly prohibits both direct and indirect taxpayer funding of sectarian schools.

“Voucher programs like Oklahoma’s are little more than a taxpayer-funded handout for religious schools,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The Oklahoma Constitution is crystal clear when it comes to public support of religious schools: It is not allowed.”

Oklahoma’s Constitution states that, “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”

And contrary to the arguments made by some voucher proponents, there is no evidence that Oklahoma’s “No Aid Clause” was motivated by anti-Catholic bias. On the contrary, the “No Aid Clause” was designed to protect the freedom of religious minorities and ensure that government-funded programs were religiously neutral and open to all.

At issue is Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nichole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act, which is intended to assist special-needs students with tuition costs for private schools. It was struck down in 2014 by the Oklahoma County District Court, and Americans United and its allies say that decision should be upheld because the framers of the Oklahoma Constitution clearly did not intend for public funds to be used for religious matters. This was especially important in Oklahoma, where the framers sought to protect the rights of Native Americans.

“The prohibition against indirect funding of religious institutions was essential to the Framers’ goals: both Protestant and Catholic leaders were attempting to coerce Native Americans into authorizing the use of their government-controlled funds to finance religious schools,” the brief says. “The Framers would have wanted to prohibit any program—like the school voucher program—that would direct government funds to religious schools under the guise of parental choice.”

Says Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper: “The voucher program strips funds from public schools—which are open to everyone, no matter what they believe—and diverts them to religious schools, which can and do discriminate on the basis of religion. Oklahoma taxpayers should not be forced to pay for religious discrimination.”

The brief for Oliver v. Hofmeister was written by Lipper, along with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Madison Fellow Zachary A. Dietert. Ryan D. Kiesel and Brady Henderson of the ACLU of Oklahoma served as co-counsel. 

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.