Tax-sponsored vouchers for religious schools? No, says court.

More good news on separation of church and state: A Colorado district court ruled, on August 12, 2011, 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. [Americans United describes itself as “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.]

The program in question—the“Choice Scholarship Pilot Program”—offered tuition vouchers worth $4,575 to students to spend at religious and other private schools.  Part of the problem, according to the lawsuit, was that 18 of the 23 schools approved for the program were religious.

“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 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.”

Undoubtedly, this ruling will face appeals: by the religious groups who benefit from vouchers; by right-wingers who hope to undermine a public system that [theoretically] promotes education for everyone and creates [again, theoretically] an educated electorate; and by business interests who see a potential new revenue stream in the ultimate privatization of American education.

I realize that many on the left have expressed support for public-school vouchers, as a way of creating an educational marketplace that could spur less-competitive schools to improve. I acknowledge that there may be merit in that rationale. But in the Colorado case, as in—I suspect—many others, the voucher concept is being cynically manipulated for the benefit of religious schools. And one more question: The  religious groups who vociferously insist on taxpayer-supported “school choice” for parents and children–Do they happen to be the same people who vociferously oppose reproductive choice for women? Just asking.

Kudos to Americans United, ACLU, and the court.