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DENVER – Three civil liberties organizations today asked the Colorado Supreme Court to strike down a Douglas County voucher program that provides public education funds to private religious schools.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Colorado asked the court to overturn a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the program. The groups say that the voucher plan illegally diverts taxpayer money to religious schools in violation of the Colorado Constitution.
"Taxpayers in Colorado should not be compelled to subsidize religious education," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.
The so-called "Choice Scholarship Pilot Program" offered tuition vouchers worth $4,575 to 500 students to spend at religious and other private schools. For the purposes of obtaining the state per-pupil educational funds, Douglas County created a public charter school, which exists only on paper, and enrolled students in the sham school.
In reality, students were set to attend one of 23 district-approved "Private School Partners," and the voucher money would be paid to the schools. As of the filing of the lawsuit, 18 of the 23 approved Private School Partners were religious.
"The Colorado Constitution is very clear on this question. Public funds may not subsidize religious institutions," said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. "We're urging the Colorado Supreme Court to accept this case and strike down this misguided scheme."
A lower court struck down the plan, but the court of appeals overturned that decision in February in a 2-1 ruling.
"Parents may, of course, decide to send their children to religious schools, but the state constitution forbids the use of public funds to pay for such religious education," added Heather L. Weaver, staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "We are hopeful that the Colorado Supreme Court will accept this case and vindicate the religious liberty right of taxpayers to ensure that public funds do not support religious institutions."
"This case raises issues important to the constitutionally mandated public education system in Colorado, which is facing serious financial difficulties," said attorney Matthew J. Douglas of the Denver office of the international law firm Arnold & Porter LLP, who argued the appeal. "If the court of appeals' decision stands, the result could be widespread public funding of religious education throughout the state, as other school districts would be able to enact voucher programs similar to Douglas County's. We believe the Colorado Supreme Court should weigh in on this important issue and enforce the Colorado Constitution's clear prohibition of such funding."
The plaintiffs are represented by Douglas, Timothy R. Macdonald, and Michelle K. Albert of Arnold & Porter LLP; Luchenitser and Ayesha N. Khan of Americans United; Weaver and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; and Silverstein and Sara Rich of the ACLU of Colorado.
A copy of the petition is available here: aclu.org/religion-belief/larue-v-douglas-county-school-district-colorado-supreme-court-petition