Civil rights group to challenge Ohio voucher law

Wednesday, July 14, 1999

Editor's note: On July 21, People for the American Way Foundation and several other groups filed suit in U.S. District Court in Ohio seeking to have the newly re-enacted Cleveland voucher program declared unconstitutional. The groups hope to halt the program's implementation in the coming school year.

A civil rights group is preparing to challenge Ohio's new voucher law, saying it is unconstitutional because it allows government aid to religious schools.

The voucher program, signed into law June 29 by Gov. Robert Taft, provides state funds to low-income families to help pay for tuition to a private school of their choosing.

Elliot Mincberg, executive vice president and legal director for People for the American Way Foundation, says there is no question that his organization and several others will file a lawsuit before the end of the month challenging the voucher plan.

Attaching the voucher measure to the state's education budget bill was a “stealth attempt” to pass it, said Judith E. Schaeffer, deputy legal director for People for the American Way.

“There's no question that [the law] is unconstitutional,” violating the First Amendment's mandated separation of church and state, Schaeffer said. “Why are [legislators] afraid to face vouchers on their merits?”

“Instead of open and honest debate, voucher supporters are giving us 'vouchers in a haystack,'” Carole Shields, the nonprofit group's president, said in a prepared statement. “If legislatures can't get the support to enact vouchers on their own, that's a good reason to forget about vouchers and get down to the real work of strengthening public schools.”

In May, the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Cleveland's voucher program, which passed as part of a state general appropriations bill in 1995, does not violate the First Amendment. However, a majority of the justices ruled that it did violate a state constitutional provision that requires a bill to contain only one subject. The new voucher law passed as an attachment to the state's education budget bill.

“This means that the Cleveland school voucher program will continue without interruption,” said Matthew Berry, staff attorney for the Institute of Justice, the firm that argued in Ohio courts in support of the voucher program.

“Now over 3,000 students will be able to stay in high-quality schools,” Berry said.

“The Ohio Supreme Court said the program was constitutional and I am confident of the outcome,” he said.