Washington The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that tuition vouchers are constitutional, a landmark church-state decision that could fundamentally change the educational landscape by allowing wider public financing of religious schools.
The 5-4 decision allows taxpayer money to underwrite tuition at private or parochial schools if parents retain a wide choice of where to send their children. Like other recent rulings led by the court's conservative majority, the case allows blending of government and religion, and it takes that trend further than ever before.
Vouchers are an education idea championed by conservatives including President Bush, who call them a ticket out of dismal and dangerous public schools. Opponents say they are a sham and divert badly needed public money from already strapped public schools.
The decision closed out the court's annual term.
"The Supreme Court has offered the hope of an excellent education to parents and children throughout our country," Bush said. "This decision clears the way for other innovative school choice programs so that no child in America will be left behind."
Vouchers do not put the government in the unconstitutional position of promoting religion so long as parents make schooling choices for their children and have a wide menu of public, private or religious schools, the court majority said.
The ruling upholds a program in inner-city Cleveland that gives mostly poor parents a tuition subsidy of up to $2,250 per child. The city has one of the worst-rated school systems in the nation.
"The Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Cleveland parents may spend the money at private academies, church-run schools or at suburban public schools with better academic credentials. In practice, however, more than 95 percent of the participating schools are church-affiliated.
The majority rejected arguments that the program created the impression of government-sponsored religion.
"No reasonable observer would think a neutral program of private choice, where state aid reaches religious schools solely as a result of the numerous independent decisions of private individuals, carries with it the imprimatur of government endorsement," Rehnquist wrote.
The ruling provoked three overlapping and strongly worded dissents. Justice David H. Souter wrote the main one, which was joined by fellow liberal-leaning Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Souter took the unusual step of announcing his dissent from the bench, and took aim at the idea that giving parents spending choices cancels out constitutional worries about where the money ends up.
"There is, in any case, no way to interpret the 96.6 percent of current voucher money going to religious schools as reflecting a free and genuine choice by the families that apply for vouchers," Souter wrote.
Writing separately, Stevens said the majority forgot the lessons of America's own founding, and the modern examples of religious unrest in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
"Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy," Stevens wrote.
Breyer also wrote a separate dissent.
The voucher case also spawned enormous public relations efforts among supporters and opponents, including ad campaigns featuring parents of voucher students.
"It means everything to us," said Elaine Barclay, who has two daughters attending a Baptist school under Cleveland's voucher program. "We were praying they would rule for the vouchers."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the ruling "the worst church-state decision in the past 50 years."
"The Supreme Court has taken a wrecking ball to the wall of separation between church and state," Lynn said.
Thursday's ruling means the roughly 4,000 students in the 6-year-old Cleveland program may return to their parochial or private classrooms in the fall, and it probably also guarantees that similar voucher programs in Milwaukee and Florida will continue.
The ruling focused on whether the program violated the First Amendment's guarantee that government will not establish religion. With that constitutional cloud lifted, states may design new voucher programs like Cleveland's.
Voucher supporters and opponents both predicted the debate will now shift to state legislatures.
Teachers' unions lead the opposition, arguing that they drain public schools of motivated students, involved parents and crucial cash. Supporters counter that vouchers can force public schools to shed sluggish bureaucracies and compete to hold onto students and funding.
Congress last year shelved a White House voucher plan. Bush resurrected the idea this year, proposing in his 2003 budget to give families up to $2,500 per child in tax credits if they choose a private school rather than a failing neighborhood public school.
Thursday's ruling continues the conservative court majority's recent pattern of loosening the rules for using state money for religious purposes, and of mandating equal treatment for religious organizations or ideas.
The court has allowed tax deductions in Minnesota for parochial education expenses, state tuition aid for a Washington seminary student, and sign language interpreters for deaf parochial school students.
The court has also opened schoolhouse doors to a Bible club, required school funding for a religious magazine and allowed government aid for computers and tutoring in parochial schools.
Thursday's cases are Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 00-1751; Hannah Perkins School v. Simmons-Harris, 00-1777; Taylor v. Simmons-Harris, 00-1779.