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In the 1990s, the Cleveland, Ohio public schools were among the worst performing nationally. To provide quality education to Cleveland’s low-income children, Ohio started awarding vouchers, which parents could use to fund tuition to the participating schools of the parents’ choice.
It turned out that 82 percent of participating private schools were religious, and 96 percent of voucher recipients attended religious private schools. Some Ohio taxpayers did not want their tax dollars funding religious institutions. These taxpayers sued in federal court to enjoin the voucher program, contending that it violated the Establishment Clause by advancing the schools’ religious objectives.
The district court struck down the program, and the court of appeals affirmed. Then, the United States Supreme Court granted cert in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), to determine whether the Establishment Clause permits government-funded tuition assistance to low-income students, most of whom attend religious schools.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the voucher program did not advance religion in a manner contrary to the Establishment Clause.
The decision was a major victory for school-choice advocates and an important mile marker in the Court’s evolving constitutional jurisprudence around government involvement with religion.