Voucher backers to Colorado high court: don’t exclude religious schools

The Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs has joined several other Christian schools and organizations in a legal brief to support a county voucher program, saying the Colorado Supreme Court should not exclude schools that are “too religious.”
“To exclude otherwise qualifying schools based solely on religious criteria is to engage in unconstitutional religious discrimination,” the brief says. “It may also lead to unconstitutional religious inquiries.”
The case concerns Douglas County’s school voucher program, called the Choice Scholarship Program. It allows parents of students to receive 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil revenue to attend private schools the district has approved to participate in the program, the Denver Post reports.
Legal challenges halted the program in 2011, just before over 300 children were set to enroll in it. Most of the students intended to attend religious schools.
A provision in the Colorado constitution bars aid to private schools and churches for “any sectarian purpose.”
The Diocese of Colorado Springs’ brief argues that the state constitutional provision mandates “religious discrimination” by treating religion as a “disqualifying characteristic.” It may also mandate “excessive religious inquiries” to determine whether a school’s programs and activities have “religious meaning or significance.”
Religious private school partners of the program are fully accredited and their graduates are “fully qualified” for additional education or work opportunities, the brief notes, adding that the scholarship program was “religiously neutral” and the constitutional provision should not be interpreted to prohibit it.
The Denver District Court ruled against the program, while the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld it in February 2013 by a 2-1 vote.
The Colorado Supreme Court is now considering the issue.
Matthew Douglas, a lawyer representing opponents of the program, said in court Dec. 10 that the Colorado Constitution’s “plain language” means that taxpayer money cannot fund parents’ choice of religious education for their children.
Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, said the conference has not taken an official position on the legal case. However, the conference generally supports legislative initiatives that “promote parental choice.”
She told CNA Dec. 12 that vouchers are “a good tool that can be used to further advance parental choice in education.”
She cited the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, which said “Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.”
Colorado’s provision against school or church aid for “sectarian” purpose makes the state among the more than 30 U.S. states which have Blaine Amendments in their constitutions. The amendments are named for the 19th century politician and Republican 1884 presidential nominee James G. Blaine.
Kraska said that opponents of school vouchers who cite such provisions should know “they were intended to suppress Catholic schools in favor of Protestant dominated public schools.”
“Blaine Amendments are used as weapons to discriminate against sectarian schools and the opponents of the Douglas County voucher program have used Colorado’s Blaine Amendment to do the same,” she said.

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