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Local reaction to private school tuition case

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that taxpayers who challenged an Arizona law providing tax credits to school tuition organizations lacked standing to challenge a program that uses state funds generated by tax revenues to award scholarships to private religious schools.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the close 5-4 decision in the case of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn et al. and was joined by the court’s four conservative justices. Since 1997, Arizona residents have been allowed to send up to $500 ($1,000 for married couples) to a school tuition organization and receive a dollar for dollar credit on income tax they would otherwise have paid.

In addition to the court’s ruling on the standing issue, pro-school choice advocates say the decision and the tax credit Arizonans get for contributing to the program promotes parental choice in education. The court said the taxpayers are not forced to contribute to the state program that sends money to religious schools.

Rochester education law attorney Lori Parker said New York does not appear to have a similar law and doubted a “conservative” measure such as Arizona’s would pass through the New York Legislature. However, it’s a measure the New York State Catholic Conference, which speaks for the Rochester Diocese and all the dioceses in the state, would like to see enacted and believes will be enacted in time.

“Bishop [Matthew H.] Clark and his brother bishops have long advocated for some sort of governmental assistance for tuition payments to help parents shoulder the burden,” said Catholic Conference director of education, Jim Cultrara in Albany. “We’re encouraged by this U.S. Supreme Court decision and also by the number of such programs in states across the country.”

Besides the law in Arizona, Cultrara said there are more than a dozen states with educational tax credit programs in place and there are a growing number of New York state legislators who support it.

“Assuming there was a similar New York statute in place, this decision would appear to be telling us it would pass constitutional muster,” Parker said. “Clearly, what we’ve seen are Supreme Court decisions that favor tax credits for religious institutions.”

As public funds for school systems dwindle, a program such as Arizona’s could make parents’ choice of private school more attractive. 

In an earlier decision, Flast v. Cohen, the court created a narrow exception to the prohibition on taxpayer challenges to government spending of tax revenues, but Justice Kennedy said “a tax credit allows dissenting taxpayers to use their own funds in accordance with their own consciences” and the Arizona program does not use an objector’s tax dollars to pay for religious activity.

“Arizona taxpayers remain free to pay their own tax bills, without contributing to an STO,” he said.

Advocates of the Arizona program also said religious schools were just part of the program and there were other options. In addition, no one religion was favored over another.

The Americans for Civil Liberties Union represented the plaintiff group of Arizona taxpayers who challenged the law as a violation of the Establishment Clause.

“It’s a very disappointing decision that ignores precedent, defies logic and undermines the role of the courts in preserving the core constitutional principle that government may not subsidize religion,” ACLU legal director Steven R. Shapiro said in a statement.

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” said Rochester ACLU attorney Scott Forsyth. “We now have a program that can’t be attacked.”

But Forsyth said with a more expansive definition of standing in New York, “a taxpayer might have been able to challenge this here.”