DougCo Vouchers for Religious School Tuition Rejected by State Supreme Court

In March 2014, we noted that the Colorado Supreme Court had agreed to hear a challenge to Douglas County School District's controversial voucher system.

More than a year later, the court has ruled — and its decision marks a victory for the plaintiffs and a setback for DougCo school board members, who consider themselves to be reformers, not radicals.

The target of the complaint, known as LaRue v. Colorado Board of Education, pertains to Douglas County's Choice Scholarship Pilot program, Enacted four years ago, the CSP, as it's shorthanded, offers near $4,600 "scholarships" to as many as 500 students per annum to help pay for tuition at private schools, including ones that are faith-based.

The ACLU of Colorado, among other parties, objected to this outlay on the grounds that it violated the Colorado constitution — but in 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Douglas County by a 2-1 margin.

The state supreme court flipped that script.

Here Article IX, Section 7 of the constitution, highlighted in the ruling:
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....

The phrasing of this passage struck the court as definitive, as is noted in this excerpt from the decision:
Although this provision uses the the term 'sectarian' rather than 'religious,' the two words are synonymous.... That section 7 twice equates the word 'sectarian' with the word 'church' only reinforces this point. Therefore, this stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear: A school district may not aid religious schools.

Yet aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP does. The CSP essentially functions as a recruitment program, teaming with various religious schools...and encouraging students to attend those schools via the inducement of scholarships. To be sure, the CSP does not explicity funnel money directly to religious schools, instead providing financial aid to students. But section 7's provisions are not limited to direct funding. Rather, section 7 bars school districts from "pay[ing] from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any" religious institution....
ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein was thrilled by the decision, saying in a statement, "Parents are free to send their children to private religious schools if they wish, but the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed today that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it."

Far less excited by the turn of events is Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. Her own statement reads: "We are disappointed in the Court’s ruling because it means that school districts now have one fewer tool to support parents in choosing the education that best fits their children’s needs. This ruling harms Colorado’s children, who deserve every opportunity to reach their full potential regardless of school setting or family income."

Also peeved are the folks behind the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Association of Christian Schools International, the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colorado Christian University, and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

“Children are the ones who will suffer the most from the court’s decision today," states ADF senior council Gregory Baylor. "The court’s decision is wrong because faith-based schools that meet all other qualifications cannot constitutionally be excluded from a religiously neutral program. The Court of Appeals had affirmed that, and the Colorado Supreme Court should have done the same. These schools provide an excellent education that meets all state standards. They should continue to be welcomed into programs like this one so that students, the community, and the government will all benefit.”

The Douglas County School Board is already considering the possibility of appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Learn more about that in a Fox31 report, followed by the ruling and the original complaint.

LaRue v. Colorado Board of Education Ruling

LaRue v. Colorado Board of Education

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts