Religious Liberty on the Docket

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

This case falls into the legal category of: ,

Case Dates:
Wednesday, 31 January, 1996 - Thursday, 27 June, 2002
Facts:

In 1995, the state of Ohio adopted a controversial school voucher program that enabled children in certain troubled districts to receive scholarships to attend private or parochial schools. The program covered any school district that had come under a federal court order “requiring supervision and operational management of the district by the state superintendent” – a description that applied to the city of Cleveland as a result of mismanagement by the school board.

One parent, Doris Simmons-Harris, challenged the voucher program on the grounds that it gave public money to private religious schools, thus violating prohibitions by both federal and state governments against the establishment of religion. ACLU of Ohio attorneys Joan Englund and Raymond Vasvari, along with national ACLU attorney Steve Shapiro, handled the case against the State. (John Goff and later Susan Tave Zelman were the state superintendents of public instruction during this period). They were joined by co-counsel from several other organizations. Most of the sectarian schools that benefited from the voucher program believed in mixing religious beliefs with secular subjects. This typically meant mandatory instruction in religion and participation in religious services; schools also frequently integrated Christian doctrine into science, language arts, and other academic lessons.

After the Franklin County Common Pleas Court decided that the voucher program should remain in effect, the court of appeals ruled that the program was unconstitutional. In 1999, the Ohio Supreme Court then heard the case and struck down the program – but not due to the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Instead, the court ruled that the program must be shut down because it violated the “one subject” provision of the Ohio Constitution, which mandated that legislation contain only one subject. Because the voucher program had been added on to a bill pertaining to the state budget, the court viewed its passage as a violation of the state Constitution.

Later that year, the Ohio legislature reinstated the voucher program in a way that avoided any conflicts with the “one subject” provision. In every other relevant way, however, the voucher program remained identical to its original form. This time, a district court judge, Solomon Oliver Jr., and the court of appeals ruled that the program violated the Establishment Clause.

Ultimately, however, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the program. The highest court’s ruling included several points: First, not all schools participating in the program were religiously affiliated; second, parents had the freedom to choose which school their children attended. And finally, the only way state funds reached the private, religious schools was through parents’ choosing to send their children there– not through any plan by the government to endorse a specific religious program.