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Douglas County School District's voucher program gets new life following Supreme Court ruling


The Douglas County School District's long-contested school voucher program will get another look from the Colorado Supreme Court following a ruling by the United States Supreme Court on a similar case in Missouri.

The justices said the Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its 2015 ruling that DCSD's Choice Scholarship Program was unconstitutional.

In the case Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a Missouri church sued after being denied state funding for a preschool playground because the Missouri state Constitution forbids financially supporting a religious institution.

On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state's original decision violated the U.S. Constitution's protection of the free exercise of religion by excluding churches from state programs with a secular intent. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

"The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion.

The case focused on the state's Blaine Amendment, which forbid the state government from using public funds for "any church, sector or denomination of religion."

In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down DCSD's school voucher program, saying it violated the Blaine Amendment in the Colorado constitution.

As a result of the recent ruling in Missouri, the court sent back to the Colorado Supreme Court a case known as Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District.

"It's standard practice for the Supreme Court to send back cases to the lower courts to give them the first opportunity to determine what effect, if any, recent rulings may have on existing litigation," said Cindy Barnard, president of Taxpayers For Public Education. "The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding.  We believe that the Colorado courts will reach the same result as before and prohibit the Douglas County voucher program."

Taxpayers For Public Education is a Colorado-based, nonprofit organization that advocates for a strong public education system, according to its website.

DCSD legal counsel William Trachman said the district was looking forward to a second chance to review the case.

"The U.S. Supreme Court granted DCSD's petition for review, vacated the Colorado Supreme Court's prior decision and remanded the cases involving the Douglas County School District's Choice Scholarship Program back to the Colorado Supreme Court," Tranchman said in an emailed statement. "We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court's second review and decision on this important matter. As always, DCSD is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children."

Board of education President Meghann Silverthorn called it an "incredible week for religious liberty, with major implications for school choice."

"The case has been vacated, meaning that the Trinity decision has struck a blow at the heart of a relic of anti-Catholic bigotry that has no place in our society. The Blaine clause in the state constitution has unjustly discriminated against families who are engaging in the free exercise of religion, and I am delighted to see that the Court agreed that the principle is 'odious to our Constitution and cannot stand,'" Silverthorn said. "I look forward to seeing how the Colorado Supreme Court will view our case in light of the new legal landscape."

The voucher dispute dates to 2011, when the school board approved the Choice Scholarship Program. Designed to accommodate 500 students, it allowed students' parents to use state-provided, per-pupil money toward tuition at private schools, including religiously affiliated institutions.

Taxpayers for Public Education subsequently filed a lawsuit against the district to stop it. A Denver judge halted the program that same year, but in 2013, a state appeals court reversed that decision. The state's top court in June 2015 issued a ruling saying using public funds for religious schooling was illegal.

The district filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2015.


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