A Douglas County, Colo., school voucher program that allows taxpayer dollars to flow directly to religious schools is unconstitutional, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado say.
In a brief filed yesterday with the Colorado Supreme Court in the case of LaRue v. Colorado Board of Education, the civil liberties groups assert that the county’s so-called “Choice Scholarship Pilot Program” violates the Colorado Constitution because it subsidizes tuition at private schools with taxpayer dollars.
“Whenever taxpayers are directly subsidizing a religious organization it is plainly unconstitutional,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “That is clearly the case when it comes to Douglas County’s voucher scheme.”
The “scholarship” program offers tuition vouchers worth about $4,600 to 500 students to spend at religious and other private schools. In order to obtain state per-pupil educational funds, Douglas County treats these children as “public school students” attending a charter school that exists only on paper.
In reality, however, the voucher money is spent at district-approved “Private School Partners,” a collection of private schools. As of the filing of the lawsuit, 18 of the 23 approved Private School Partners were religious.
“The Douglas County School District … seeks to divert millions of state taxpayer dollars—which are designated for public elementary and high-school education—to private schools that are owned and operated by churches and other religious organizations,” the brief says. “Most of these schools embed religious instruction in all areas of their curricula. Most of them discriminate based on religion and require attendance at religious services.”
“The Supreme Court’s ruling will not only affect Douglas County’s voucher scheme, but also other districts and government officials who are watching with their own plans to adopt similar unconstitutional diversions of taxpayer dollars to religious organizations,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein.
The civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit in 2011 on behalf of parents, clergy and taxpayers. A lower court agreed with their position, but the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the voucher program in Feb. 2013.
“The Colorado Constitution was plainly intended to bar any form of tax aid to religious schools,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “If the Constitution’s framers could know that a Colorado court had upheld this voucher program, they would be rolling over in their graves.”
The case will likely be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court late this year or early next year.
"Parents are free to choose religious education for their children, but the Colorado Constitution forbids taxpayer dollars from paying for that education," said attorney Matthew J. Douglas of the Denver office of Arnold & Porter LLP, who is lead counsel in the case.
The plaintiffs are represented by Douglas, Timothy R. Macdonald, and Michelle K. Albert of Arnold & Porter LLP; Luchenitser and Ayesha N. Khan of Americans United; Heather L. 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.