Supreme Court rules in favor of Ariz. religious schools

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNA)—In what's being lauded as a major victory for parental choice in education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arizona residents have a right to claim tax credit for donations to non-profit groups that provide scholarships to religious schools.

“Parents should be able to choose what’s best for their own children,” attorney David Cortman of the Alliance Defense Fund said. “This ruling empowers parents to do just that.”

On April 4, the high court ruled 5 – 4 to dismiss a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union against an Arizona program that sought to promote school choice.

The case had pitted the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization against a group of citizens charging that a 1997 government tax credit program amounted to a state establishment of religion. The program allowed taxpayers to donate money toward a variety of private scholarship foundations, rather than paying the same amount to the government through taxes.

The Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization is one of more than 50 non-profit groups that gives donations in the form of scholarships to more than 27,000 students attending hundreds of private schools throughout the state.

“This decision is a great victory for taxpaying parents of private school children in Arizona,” said Diocese of Providence Catholic Schools Superintendent Dan Ferris.

“It should serve as an impetus in Rhode Island for similar legislation to create tax credits for school tuition organizations (STOs). STOs can provide desperately needed scholarships for students attending non-public schools, both sectarian and nonsectarian. Everyone wins with this decision: the State yields immense cost savings, it relieves a financial burden on public schools, and hardworking tax paying parents are given assistance with a choice of education for their children. I hope our governor and state legislators are taking note,” he said.

The Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund, which helped defend the tuition organization, argued that the Arizona program involves individual, private choices and funding, not government action or money. The group also argued that the program saves the state money and relieves some of the burden on overcrowded public schools.

The Supreme Court sided with the non-profit and dismissed the suit on Monday, ruling that the American Civil Liberties Union's clients did not have any legal standing to sue over someone else’s private donations.

The Alliance Defense Fund said that the decision creates a national precedent that will prevent similar legal action in the future.

“Parents should decide what schools their children attend and where their money goes,” said Cortman, who serves as Senior Counsel for the defense fund.

He said that the American Civil Liberties Union “failed in its attempt to eliminate school choice for hundreds of thousands of students nationwide and also failed to demonstrate that it had any constitutional basis for its clients to file suit in the first place.”

In a strong gesture of support for the Christian tuition organization last November, acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Kaytal said that opponents of the tax credit had no case. “Not a cent” of taxpayers' money was even indirectly funding religious schools, the solicitor general observed. “Not a fraction of a cent … As you track the taxpayers' dollars, it doesn't actually fund any religious program.”

Thus, the Obama-appointed solicitor general said, challengers of the Arizona law could not bring a complaint as taxpayers, nor could they claim an establishment of religion.