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Colorado nixes school vouchers for religious schools

Blank Colorado license plate

Blank Colorado license plate

Yesterday, the Colorado Supreme Court turned thumbs down on a school voucher program in suburban Douglas County on the grounds that, in permitting the vouchers to be used in religious "partner schools," the program violated the state constitution's bar on aiding religion.

This is a national story because, as the New York Times puts it, "The vouchers were at the heart of a series of conservative reforms that have transformed Douglas County into an educational battleground in recent years, pitting teachers’ unions, civil liberties groups and liberal parents against conservative families, a majority conservative school board and a group backed by the billionaire conservative Koch brothers."

There's no question that providing the option of faith-based education is central to the county's conservative reform plan. Not only are sixteen Of the 23 eligible partner schools religious, but 14 of them are located outside the Douglas school district (which lies between Denver and Colorado Springs). Yet Article IX, Section 7 Colorado Constitution leaves little doubt about how the state regards aid to religion:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money or other personal property, ever be made by the state, or any such public corporation to any church, or for any sectarian purpose.

Proponents of the voucher plan say they'll appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, and they could prevail. In 2002, the Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that vouchers used by parents to pay for the children's education at religious schools did not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on religious establishments. But two years later, the Court ruled in Locke v. Davey that a state could deny a public scholarship to a student for study at a seminary. And even if the Court overruled Colorado's constitutional ban in principle, it could find that by designating particular religious schools for aid and declining to designate others, Douglas County impermissibly crossed the constitutional line on religious establishments.

Whatever transpires, there's no question that we have entered a period of increased litigation over religion (think contraception mandates and same-sex marriage). In recent years, both liberals and conservatives have flirted with the idea that religious actors should be treated on the same terms as non-religious -- bound by "neutral laws of general applicability" on the one hand and entitled to the same opportunities and privileges as secular actors on the other.

But in writing the First Amendment, the framers of the Constitution recognized that religion is not the same as other forms of action and expression. Its "free exercise" is entitled to special consideration, and its "establishment" is subject to special limitations. In other words, neutrality towards religion is not what America was supposed to be about. That's worth bearing in mind as we head into the minefield.


  1. God doesn’t need my cash. He does not require a government subsidy. The conservatives are seeking ways to undermine public education and give their sectarian religious beliefs force of law. The Colorado State Supreme Court made the sane decision.

  2. Of course, the fundamentalist evangelicals will soon be wailing “persecution” because the government is declining to help them establish and spread their religion through the public education system.

  3. “Koch brothers”, If they are for it I know something is wrong with it.
    There are federal and state grants for specific studies and programs that do go to private universities and colleges which has a denominational base.
    However, this voucher program in Douglas School District doesn’t seem to pass the smell test.

  4. More persecution being aimed at Evangelical Christians. Plain and simple. Notice how the anti-Christians crow about this. They see it as a direct attack on the ability of Christians to spread their message. But of course, the Humanist Indoctrination Centers still wearing the facade “Public Education” get unlimited amount of forced financial help from the Christian populace they aim to crush out of society.

    This is absolutely persecution.

  5. I endorse yours and Larry’s opinions. However, the Catholic bishops have wealth and clout far greater than the un-unified evangelicals. In every state they have paid lobbyists known as Catholic Conferences for taxpayer support of their schools as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops which does so on an national basis. They also have a multitude of proxy organizations they fund to carry out their political agendas.

  6. BB – that’s a real load of BS. I’m a devout Christian, evangelical and I don’t see this as persecution at all. Its conservatives who are against anything government does and who only want their money spent on themselves – no sense of community or the common good.

  7. Tell me again why your God needs my cash?

    Is your faith so weak that you have to support it by coercing money from unbelievers and giving it government endorsement? I guess so. That doesn’t say much for your belief.

    If you want to promote your religious belief, do it on your own dime. We have a government which is secular. It must embrace all beliefs or show favoritism to none. Giving money to parochial schools to enforce their sectarian ideals doesn’t cut it.

  8. It makes no difference if a math teacher educates students in algebra, whether he/she is a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. If the state has a goal of providing education, they should fund this activity and impose two requirements:
    The teacher must restrict their utterances from any religious proselytization, and the student’s test scores exhibit an acceptable level of accomplishment.

    Whoever gets the job done, gets the money.

  9. Thankfully, as our founding fathers intended, secular society is supposed to be humanistic. Not subject to religious rule is what make a government/society ‘secular’. If not secular, then it would be religious. If religious, which religion? Humanism, defined, ‘stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.’ We wouldn’t want society to operate any other way. But, our same constitution invites religions of all kinds to take this basic love for humanity and add a spiritual component. Sadly, when religions operate governments the make their own religious preferences #1 and forget to love all people.

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