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School Vouchers Again on Horizon in States

A new campaign has been launched by the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice (IJ) to use state courts to overturn laws barring public funds to be used for religious schools in the form of vouchers. Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont are the primary targets of the group’s legal strategy, according to the Boston Globe. The Institute for Justice was the lead counsel in the June US Supreme Court case that decided 5-4 that the school voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, did not violate the Constitution’s separation of church and state. Clark Neily, senior attorney at IJ, told the Globe that the group planned to file lawsuits over school vouchers in at least six states over the next year in an attempt to draw another Supreme Court ruling establishing a stronger federal precedent for vouchers.

Along with IJ’s state suit in Maine, the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by religious extremist Pat Robertson, filed suit in federal court against Maine for “discriminating” against religious schools because the state prohibits them from receiving public funding. Maine and Vermont both have programs that provide parents with vouchers for private schools, but not parochial schools, if they live in rural areas with no public schools nearby. Vermont’s Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that state funds could not be used for religious schools, a ruling that IJ plans to challenge, according to the Globe. In addition, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit with such far-right Congress members as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) on its advisory board, will challenge an 1855 constitutional amendment in Massachusetts barring public funding to religious schools, the Globe reports.

In addition, legislative action is expected in New Hampshire, Texas, Colorado, and South Carolina next year, as candidates who campaigned in favor of school vouchers were elected as state legislators and governors in those states, according to the Globe. In Texas, efforts to gain school vouchers were stalled for years by Pete Laney, speaker of the state House of Representatives; however, the midterm election put Republicans in charge of both houses for the first time since Reconstruction, according to the Associated Press. The Texas legislature is expected to include school vouchers as a key part of its agenda in January. In a Scripps Howard poll in October, 47 percent of Texans said they opposed school vouchers, according to the Houston Chronicle. In Colorado, the new state Senate president is Republican John Andrews, who sponsored earlier unsuccessful school voucher bills. Democrats were previously in control of the Senate and had blocked voucher bills from gaining floor votes, according to AP.

Sources:

Boston Globe 11/18/02; Associated Press 11/11/02; Houston Chronicle 11/15/02; CNSNews.com 10/22/02; IJ press release 9/18/02; Feminist Daily News Wire