Zelman v. Simmons-Harris
, , was a case decided by the United States Supreme Court which tested the allowance of school vouchers in relation to the establishment clause of the First Amendment
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering...
In one of its most important establishment clause cases in a century, a divided Court upheld an Ohio
Ohio is a Midwestern state in the United States. The 34th largest state by area in the U.S.,it is the 7th‑most populous with over 11.5 million residents, containing several major American cities and seven metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more.The state's capital is Columbus...
school voucher plan.
The public schools in many of the poorer parts of Cleveland were deemed failures, and the legislature enacted the Pilot Project Scholarship Program in an effort to address the problem. The program provided tuition vouchers for up to $2,250 a year to some parents of students in the Cleveland City School District to attend participating public or private schools in the city and neighboring suburbs; it also allocated tutorial aid for students who remained in public school.
The vouchers were distributed to parents according to financial need, and the parents chose where to enroll their children. Because the number of students applying to the program greatly exceeded the number of vouchers available, recipients were chosen by lottery
A lottery is a form of gambling which involves the drawing of lots for a prize.Lottery is outlawed by some governments, while others endorse it to the extent of organizing a national or state lottery. It is common to find some degree of regulation of lottery by governments...
from among the eligible families. In the 1999–2000 school year, 82 percent of the participating private schools had a religious affiliation; none of the adjacent suburban public schools joined the program; and 96 percent of the students receiving vouchers were enrolled in religiously affiliated schools.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Ohio program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...
, because it passed a five-part test developed by the Court in this case, titled the Private Choice Test. The decision was 5-4, with moderate justices Anthony Kennedy
Anthony McLeod Kennedy is an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, having been appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Since the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor, Kennedy has often been the swing vote on many of the Court's politically charged 5–4 decisions...
and Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor is an American jurist who was the first female member of the Supreme Court of the United States. She served as an Associate Justice from 1981 until her retirement from the Court in 2006. O'Connor was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981...
and conservative justices William Rehnquist
William Hubbs Rehnquist was an American lawyer, jurist, and political figure who served as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States and later as the 16th Chief Justice of the United States...
, Antonin Scalia
Antonin Gregory Scalia is an American jurist who serves as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. As the longest-serving justice on the Court, Scalia is the Senior Associate Justice...
, and Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Succeeding Thurgood Marshall, Thomas is the second African American to serve on the Court....
in the majority.
Under the Private Choice Test developed by the court, for a voucher program to be constitutional it must meet all of the following criteria:
- the program must have a valid secular purpose,
- aid must go to parents and not to the schools,
- a broad class of beneficiaries must be covered,
- the program must be neutral with respect to religion, and
- there must be adequate nonreligious options.
The court ruled that the Ohio program met the five-part test in that 1) the valid secular purpose of the program was "providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system", 2) the vouchers were given to the parents, 3) the "broad class" was all students enrolled in currently failing programs, 4) parents who received vouchers were not required to enroll in a religious-based school, and 5) there were other public schools in adjoining districts, as well as non-sectarian private schools in the Cleveland area, available that would accept vouchers.
Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, stated that "The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual aid recipients not the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits." They found that, in theory, there is no need for parents to use religious schools, and so long as the law does not especially encourage the use of vouchers for religious schools, the fact that most parents do choose parochial schools is irrelevant. Indeed, the fact that in this case, the funding was given to the parents to disburse as they chose, whereas in Lemon v. Kurtzman
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 , was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Pennsylvania's 1968 Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which allowed the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to reimburse nonpublic schools for the salaries of teachers who...
the funding at question was given directly to the schools, this was a key part of the Private Choice test. The majority held, therefore, that the intent of the law was the important thing.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Thomas emphasized that voucher programs like the one in this case were essential because "failing urban public schools disproportionately affect minority children most in need of educational opportunity." He stated that vouchers and other forms of publicly funded private school choice are necessary to give families an opportunity to enroll their children in more effective private schools. Otherwise, "the core purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments.Its Citizenship Clause provides a broad definition of citizenship that overruled the Dred Scott v...
" would be frustrated.
The dissenting opinions, on the other hand, disagreed with Chief Justice Rehnquist: Justice Stevens wrote "... the voluntary character of the private choice to prefer a parochial education over an education in the public school system seems to me quite irrelevant to the question whether the government's choice to pay for religious indoctrination is constitutionally permissible." Justice Souter's opinion questioned how the Court could keep Everson v. Board of Education
Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court which applied the religion clauses in the country's Bill of Rights to state as well as federal law...
on as precedent and decide this case in the way they did, feeling it was contradictory. He also found that religious instruction and secular education could not be separated and this itself violated the Establishment Clause.