Americans United, Allied Groups File Challenge To Colorado Voucher Law

Lawsuit In State Court Says Voucher Program Subverts State Ban Against Public Funding Of Religion

A recently enacted voucher law will drain millions of dollars from Colorado public schools and violate the state constitution's ban on public financing of religion, Americans United for Separation of Church and State charges in a lawsuit filed today.

Americans United and allied organizations brought the Colorado PTA v. Owens legal action in Denver County District Court of behalf of an array of Colorado parents, clergy and taxpayers.

"Religious schools should be funded by their supporters, not the taxpayers," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "If allowed to proceed, the Colorado voucher law will force school districts statewide to divert their limited funds into religious schools. The plain language of the Colorado Constitution prohibits this kind of public aid to religion.

"The lawsuit in Colorado is an important battle in a larger conflict over the proper relationship between religion and government in America," continued Lynn. "Sectarian pressure groups and their political allies want to dismantle the public school system and force all Americans to pay for an array of religious schools. It would be a disaster if we allow that to happen."

The voucher law, called the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program, requires 11 school districts to participate and allows all others to join. The vouchers for tuition at religious and other private schools will be available to low-income students who attend public schools deemed "unsatisfactory" in at least one academic area.

The lawsuit argues that the voucher plan violates several provisions of the Colorado Constitution. That document states in part that "[n]o person shall be required...to support any ministry or place of worship, religious sect or denomination against his consent."

In addition, the Colorado Constitution prohibits the state from granting funds in support "of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school...controlled by any church or sectarian denomination."

According to the Colorado Department of Education, about 70 percent of all the state's private schools that offer education beyond kindergarten are religious. The lawsuit argues that, "All or almost all of the sectarian private schools eligible to participate in the Voucher Program are places of worships."

The voucher law also contains no restrictions on how the religious schools can spend the tax dollars they receive. Asserts the lawsuit, "Thus, participating sectarian private schools are free to use these funds in whole or in part for sectarian purposes, such as religious instruction, worship services, salaries or stipends of clergy or members of religious orders, purchase of Bibles and other religious literature, and construction of chapels and other facilities used for worship and prayer."

The lawsuit also asserts that the voucher law could end up costing the state's public schools millions in lost education funds.

"If all of the available student slots in the Voucher Program are filled, the Program will, by the time it is fully implemented in the 2007-08 school year, result in a loss of revenue to the eleven school districts required to participate in the Program of more than $90 million each year," the lawsuit reads.

In addition to Americans United, groups sponsoring the Colorado lawsuit include the Colorado PTA, the National Education Association, the National PTA, American Federation of Teachers, American Civil Liberties Union, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and People for the American Way.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State 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.

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.