A federal judge threw out the state's taxpayer-funded school voucher program today for violating the constitutional separation of church and state. But to avoid turmoil, he allowed students now in the program to remain at school.
The expected ruling by U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. made his earlier temporary order permanent. He said the program can continue running until appeals are decided.
Oliver said there has been no attempt to guarantee that state aid supports only secular educational functions of the participating schools. He also said parents of students in the program do not have a true choice between sending their children to a sectarian or nonsectarian school. Most of the participating 56 voucher schools are religious institutions.
"Thus, the program has the effect of advancing religion through government-supported religious indoctrination," Oliver said.
A trial had originally been scheduled to start Dec. 13, but Oliver decided to rule on the case based on the written arguments before him.
"We will be filing a very prompt appeal," said Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Washington-based Institute for Justice, a law firm that pursues school choice across the country.
The program gives needy children in kindergarten through sixth grade the opportunity to attend private schools in Cleveland by giving each as much as $2,500 in tuition vouchers. Most of the 3,543 children enrolled are in religious schools.
In his evaluation, Oliver included the mission statement of a participating Roman Catholic school, St. Patrick School, which is "dedicated to the formation of youth according to our Catholic traditions."
Barry Lynn, executive director in Washington of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called Oliver's ruling "a powerful rebuke to those who believe the government can force taxpayers to support churches or church schools."
Oliver initially halted the program just before the start of this school year, saying it couldn't resume until he determined its constitutionality. He later allowed students who participated in the past to continue getting funds while the case was pending.
Oliver was later overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said the program could remain intact until an appeals court ruled on its constitutionality.