WASHINGTON — The Bush administration urged the Supreme Court to take up school vouchers Friday, arguing that an Ohio school choice program does not violate the Constitution’s ban on government promotion of religion.
In a friend of the court brief, Solicitor General Theodore Olson, the government’s top lawyer, asked the Supreme Court to hear three appeals that offer an opportunity for a broad ruling on the constitutionality of private school vouchers.
By filing an uninvited brief to the nation’s top court, the Bush administration is signaling its intention to press the case for programs that allow tax dollars to be used to pay student tuition at religious schools.
School vouchers were a centerpiece of President Bush’s education platform during his campaign. Congress rejected vouchers when it recently passed a sweeping education reform package — not enough Republicans backed the idea, and most Democrats oppose vouchers, arguing that they take money away from struggling public schools.
Now the Justice Department has taken up the fight, filing its first brief staking out an ideological position on a case not already under way before the Supreme Court.
The three cases in question all deal with the constitutionality of the Ohio Pilot Project Scholarship Program. The program provides tuition aid to parents of students in failing public schools in Cleveland.
Parents are permitted to use the aid to enroll their children in a private school, including religious schools.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the program on grounds that it violates the First Amendment’s ban on government promotion, or establishment of religion.
The Justice Department argued that the Ohio program follows the model the Supreme Court has set out in previous cases for the acceptable blending of public money and religion.
The program is constitutional, the government argued, because it distributes educational aid neutrally among students without regard to religion. The choice of whether to send children to religious or nonreligious schools is left up to parents.
“All private schools ... are eligible to participate in the program, without regard to whether they are sectarian or not,” the brief said. “Religious schools may benefit under the program only as a result of the independent and private choice of parents to enroll their children in a participating religious school.”
Supporters of the Ohio program argue that vouchers give low-income parents an alternative to local public schools.
Opponents, including the Ohio Federation of Teachers, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union, say it is an illegal use of public money.
Teachers’ unions, who have opposed vouchers, said Bush should not have gotten involved with the case.
“The fact is that two states, California and Michigan, overwhelmingly rejected vouchers this year,” said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. “They’ve been rejected every time voters had an opportunity to vote against them. They were defeated in both the House and the Senate this year. The American people and Congress are saying they don’t want vouchers. It seems to me the American people and Congress should be listened to.”
Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, agreed.
“Time, resources and attention have been squandered on vouchers, instead of investing in proven reform programs,” he said. “The voters know this, a congressional majority knows this. The Bush administration should know better.”
The Supreme Court has declined to review similar cases out of Wisconsin and Maine. The court will make its decision in the fall.