Arizona School Voucher Scheme Violates State Constitution, AU Advises Court

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged the Arizona Supreme Court to strike down two voucher programs that direct tax dollars into religious and other private schools, asserting that they run afoul of the state constitution.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Dec. 1, Americans United attorneys argued that the voucher plans violate explicit provisions of the Arizona Constitution that bar public funding of private education.

Article IX, Section 10 of that document states that “no tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money in aid of any…private or sectarian school.” Article II, Section 12 states, “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction or to the support of any religious establishment.”

AU’s brief seeks to counter Religious Right arguments that language such as this is hostile to religion. Rather, AU asserts, it is intended to promote a reasonable degree of separation between religion and government, thus ensuring religious liberty for all.

Observes AU’s brief, “No-aid provisions like this one exist in many state constitutions as a supplement to basic church-state protections, and voucher schemes like the two at issue here contradict their plain meaning…. In addition to the obvious financial benefit they provide to sectarian private schools (in the form of publicly funded tuition payments), the voucher provisions aid the religious missions of these schools and of the religious groups that operate them.”

Americans United noted that opposition to taxation in support of religion has a long constitutional history.

“Thomas Jefferson emphatically wrote” the brief asserts, “that one of the principal cornerstones of our republic is a ‘wall of separation between Church and State’…. The tenet of church-state separation with the longest and deepest historical pedigree is the prohibition on the expenditure of taxes to support religion in general or religious training in particular.”

Americans United also urged the justices to be wary of claims that voucher programs benefit students. The brief cited an array of studies from several states indicating that voucher plans do not improve student academic performance.

The Arizona Court of Appeals has already ruled in the Cain v. Horne case that the programs violate the state constitution. A hearing at the state’s high court took place last month, and a decision is expected soon.

In other news about vouchers:

More than 20,000 Milwaukee students are now attending religious and other private schools at public expense thanks to the state’s voucher program, a new study by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction indicates.

Milwaukee’s plan began as an experiment nearly 20 years ago. It was first limited to non-sectarian private schools, but religious institutions were admitted into the program after a state supreme court ruling in 1998.

The study reported that 20,244 students are taking part in the voucher program. Many attend religious schools. One institution, St. Anthony Catholic School, has 1,021 voucher students, reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.