Education

Anti-Catholic Law Torpedoes Colorado School Voucher Program

Colorado’s Supreme Court has struck down a far-reaching school voucher program used by one of the state’s largest school systems, ruling that it illegally diverts taxpayer money to religious schools.

Officially, the voucher program created by the Douglas County School District in 2011 offers money for students to attend any private school, but more than 96 percent of participants prior to the program’s suspension in 2011 chose religious schools.

In response to the staggering numbers, a coalition including the ACLU, Taxpayers for Public Education, the Americans United For Separation of Church and State sued, arguing the program was illegal, and the state’s high court finally agreed Monday.

Chief Justice Nancy Rice, writing the plurality opinion, said the voucher program was essentially a “recruitment program” for religious schools. The ruling overturns an earlier decision by a state appeals court, which ruled 2-1 in favor of the program’s constitutionality.

The court’s ruling was grounded on the text of the state’s Blaine Amendments, two provisions in the state constitution decreeing that no public education funds may be given to institutions outside state control.

“Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever,” one of the amendments reads.

The amendment, similar to those implemented in many other states, is rooted in anti-Catholic sentiment from the 1800s, and was intended to prevent any public support from going to Catholic schools rather than then-existing public schools, where Protestant religious influences were often strong (students frequently read from the Protestant King James Bible, for instance).

Whatever the amendments’ origins, the court’s justices said they presented “broad, unequivocal language” barring the voucher program. One dissenting justice, Allison Eid, slammed her fellow justices for their “steadfast refusal” to consider whether the anti-Catholic nature of the Blaine Amendments violated the U.S. Constitution.

“The plurality cannot sweep the possibility of anti-Catholic bigotry under the plain language rug,” Eid said.

The battle isn’t over yet, though, as school district officials say they plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the anti-Catholic origins of the Blaine Amendments would likely be the key question in any decision.

“We have always believed that the ultimate legality of our Choice Scholarship Program would be decided by the federal courts under the United States Constitution,” said Douglas County school board president Kevin Larsen told The Denver Post. This could very well be simply a case of delayed gratification.”

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