A district court ruled today that a voucher plan adopted by the Douglas County School District violates the Colorado Constitution by diverting taxpayer money to pay students’ tuition at religious and other private schools.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU of Colorado and the national ACLU challenged the program on behalf of a group of parents, clergy and other taxpayers.
“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the voucher program illegally uses taxpayer money to promote religion and that it provides virtually no meaningful choice to families who don’t want to put their children in religious schools,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United. “It’s hardly a choice when the overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the program are religious.”
The “Choice Scholarship Pilot Program” offered tuition vouchers worth $4,575 to 500 students to spend at religious and other private schools. For the purposes of obtaining state per-pupil educational funds, Douglas County still counted these children as “public school students” attending an imaginary school that exists only on paper.
In reality, the voucher money was spent at district-approved “Private School Partners.” As of the filing of the lawsuit, 18 of the 23 approved Private School Partners are religious.
“The court correctly recognized that it is unconstitutional for the state to underwrite a child’s religious education,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado. “Families who wish to send their children to a private school may do so, but not with government funds that may only be used to provide a free public education for Colorado’s children.”
The lawsuit argues that the voucher plan violates the Colorado Constitution’s ban on the use of public funds for religious schools and state laws that require educational funds to pay for public education and remain under government control.
“When I pay my taxes, I want to be sure that my money is benefitting all Coloradans, not just those of a particular faith,” said plaintiff James LaRue. “This ruling confirms that our taxpayer dollars should be used to give all of Colorado’s schoolchildren an equal chance at a good education.”
Heather L. Weaver, staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief said this is a victory for religious liberty.
“While families have the right to decide where their children should attend school, the state cannot finance religious education at private institutions,” said Weaver. “Public education funds should be dedicated to improving our public schools, not promoting and subsidizing religion in violation of the state constitution.”
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.