A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held today that Cleveland's school voucher program was unconstitutional. The federal appeals court, which sits in Cincinnati, voted 2 to 1 to uphold the decision of federal district court Judge Solomon Oliver, which invalidated the program nearly a year ago. Judge Oliver, who sits in Cleveland, declared the program invalid and in violation of the principle of the separation of church and state on December 20, 1999. Today 's decision by the court of appeals endorsed Judge Oliver's reasoning.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, together with a broad coalition of other groups, has been challenging the voucher program since its inception. Because the overwhelming majority of students in the program attend religious schools, the voucher program has had the effect of transferring taxpayers' money to predominantly religious schools. In December of 1999, Judge Oliver held that this aspect of the program made it effectively a conduit by which state funds were used to support religious programs. After an exhaustive review of the facts, the court of appeals noted that the program provides few choices for students other than religious institutions and few incentives for non-religious schools to participate.
According to the court of appeals, "[t]here is no neutral aid when that aid principally flows to religious institutions; nor is there truly 'private choice' when the available choices resulting from the program are predominantly religious." The ACLU hailed the decision as a hard-fought victory for the First Amendment. "The court today has grounded its opinion on both a careful review of the facts and well established First Amendment law.," said Ray Vasvari, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio. "The similarities between the Cleveland voucher program and a New York program invalidated by the Supreme Court almost a quarter century ago left Judge Oliver and the Sixth Circuit with little choice but to invalidate the scheme." The ACLU also hailed the victory as sound public policy according to Chris Link, Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio.
"Despite what advocates of vouchers may say we cannot rescue troubled public schools by providing a way for students to abandon public schools. The voucher program is, and always was, a thinly veiled attempt to provide public funding to religious schools. Today the court of appeals recognized the program for what it was and acted accordingly."