DENVER (AP/CBS4) - The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a school voucher program in Douglas County violates the state constitution because it provides funding for students to attend religious schools.
The ruling Monday reverses a Colorado Court of Appeals decision upholding the program. Justices directed the case back to Denver District Court so that an order permanently blocking the program can be reinstated.
The legal battle began nearly three years ago when Douglas County Schools decided to launch a pilot program that would give up to 500 students about $4,600 each in state funds for tuition at 23 private schools, including 16 religious ones. The district argued the money aided students, not schools, because it went directly to parents who then had a choice of where to spend it.
A lawsuit was filed by parents and groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and Taxpayers for Public Education. They said the Choice Scholarship Program vouchers violate state constitutional provisions barring the use of taxpayer money to fund religious schools.
"When I heard that the district wanted to take public tax dollars intended for the education of our students in Colorado, it just seemed so wrong to me," said Cindra Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education.
Barnard told CBS4 Political Specialist Shaun Boyd, "What this meant was a tax subsidy for the wealthy to send their kids to private school."
The court ruled 5-4 against the program. The school district is still reviewing the ruling, but officials expect to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"While we're disappointed in the court's decision today, we're not surprised. We always believed that the ultimate legality of our Choice Scholarship Program would be decided by the federal courts under the United States Constitution," said Kevin Larsen, Douglas County School Board President. "This could very well be simply a case of delayed gratification."
"Parents are free to send their children to private religious schools if they wish, but the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed today that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it," ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in a statement.
During arguments before the Colorado Supreme Court in December, one of the attorneys representing the school district, Michael Bindas, said the rights of parents who want a religious education for their children was at issue.
"The equal protection clause prohibits government from making it more difficult for one class of citizens than from all others to seek aid from the government," he said.
"We will see as the clash of views continues in the courts what emerges. But the beauty of our judicial system is that from that clash the truth emerges, and we believe the truth remains to be discovered," said Craig Richardson, director of the Douglas County School District Board of Education.
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