NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A Hint Of The Supreme Court's Views On Vouchers?

June 29, 2000

Proponents of school vouchers were encouraged by the Supreme Court's 6-3 decision yesterday in the case Mitchell v. Helms. The court found that the First Amendment allows religious schools to use federal education dollars for computers, software, library books and other instructional materials.

Does that mean the court just might approve the use of state-supplied vouchers in parochial schools when such a case comes before it? Observers say that depends on the composition of the court when the case is presented and, in particular, the decisions of two justices.

  • Joined by three of his colleagues, Justice Clarence Thomas issued a sweeping opinion holding that government aid offered to schools or students without regard to religion and based on neutral, secular criteria does not have the effect of advancing religion -- and hence does not collide with the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.
  • A narrower opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, supplied the other two votes for a majority.
  • Court observers noted that O'Connor was careful not to commit herself specifically on the "voucher question" -- but voucher proponents are hopeful she and Breyer will be supportive when the time comes.
  • Cases dealing with state-funded voucher programs in Ohio and Florida are slowly making their way toward the court's docket.

Legal experts say the court has become more accepting of government programs that permit parochial schools to spend public dollars on educational goods and services that do not have religious content and that benefit children rather than the schools themselves.

Source: Chester E. Finn Jr. and Charles R. Hokanson Jr. (both of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation), "Court Ruling Augers Well for Vouchers," Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2000.

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