White House Considers Renewed Drive To Fund Churches Through 'faith-based Initiative'

Bush Push To Win 'Charitable Choice' Grants For Religion Would Be Deeply Divisive, Charges AU's Lynn

The United States Supreme Court announced today that it will hear arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of a religious school voucher program in Cleveland.

The justices have agreed to hear Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which deals with a controversial program created six years ago that provides tax dollars to finance tuition at religious and other private schools.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is co-sponsoring the lawsuit with other organizations, said this case will settle the question over the legality of vouchers once and for all.

"This is probably the most important church-state case in the last half-century," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It will be a historic showdown over government funding of religion.

"Voucher programs force taxpayers to put money in the collection plate of churches," added Lynn. "The court should never permit this to happen. The justices should uphold church-state separation and slam the door on this reckless scheme."

The Cleveland voucher program, passed by the Ohio legislature in 1995, finances vouchers of up to $2,250 for Cleveland public school students to attend religious and other private schools (Suburban public schools were included in the program, but none chose to participate.)

Currently, 56 private schools participate in the Ohio voucher program. Forty-six of them are religious in nature. During the 1999-2000 school year, 3,761 students were enrolled in the program, and 96 percent of them were attending religious schools. The program was funded at $11.2 million in 2000.

The Cleveland voucher scheme has already been rejected by two federal courts. In December 2000, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that taxpayer funding of religious schools violates the separation of church and state.

"To approve this program," observed the court, "would approve the actual diversion of government aid to religious institutions in endorsement of religious education, something 'in tension' with the precedents of the Supreme Court." (The program has continued to run while the final appeal to the Supreme Court was pursued.)

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.

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.