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Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)

In an effort to address the problem of failing public schools in Cleveland, the State of Ohio enacted a voucher program that provided vouchers to low-income parents for use at participating public and private schools. Once implemented, the schools that chose to participate were overwhelmingly religious private schools, and the vast majority of participating students went to private religious schools. A suit was brought by local taxpayers and students in Cleveland public schools claiming that the voucher program unconstitutionally aided religious schools.

Whether Cleveland's voucher program aided private religious schools in violation of the Establishment Clause.

By a 5-4 vote, the Court held that Cleveland's voucher program provided a religiously neutral benefit that gave parents a true private choice among a number of educational venues. Therefore the program did not violate the Establishment Clause.

A majority of the Court examined the Cleveland program in its totality, looking at the options available for students to go to magnet schools, receive after-school counseling, or use a voucher to go to a private school. Key to the decision was the twin requirements of neutrality and private choice. Since the program was designed to provide no incentive for either religious private, secular private, or public schools, the Court found that true private choice exists, even if the participants in the program overwhelmingly chose religious schools.

"We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice, consistent with Mueller, Witters, and Zobrest, and thus constitutional. As was true in those cases, the Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted undertaking by the State of Ohio to provide educational opportunities to the children of a failed school district." (Chief Justice William Rehnquist)

"There is, in any case, no way to interpret the 96.6% of current voucher money going to religious schools as reflecting a free and genuine choice by the families that apply for vouchers. The 96.6% reflects, instead, the fact that too few nonreligious school desks are available and few but religious schools can afford to accept more than a handful of voucher students. . . For the overwhelming number of children in the voucher scheme, the only alternative to the public schools is religious. And it is entirely irrelevant that the State did not deliberately design the network of private schools for the sake of channeling money into religious institutions. The criterion is one of genuinely free choice on the part of the private individuals who choose, and a Hobson’s choice is not a choice, whatever the reason for being Hobsonian." (Justice David H. Souter)

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Last updated: Friday, November 16, 2018 | 19:04:39