DENVER — A school voucher program in suburban Denver violates the state constitution because it provides funding for students to attend religious schools, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The ruling reverses a 2013 Colorado Court of Appeals decision upholding Douglas County's voucher program. The justices directed the case back to Denver District Court so that an order permanently blocking the program can be reinstated.
Although the school district is still reviewing the ruling, officials remained undaunted and said they expect to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Douglas County officials appeared confident about their chances to ultimately succeed, noting that their voucher program was modeled after one in the city of Cleveland's schools, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 was constitutional. In North Carolina, a legal battle over a similar voucher program is pending in the state's Supreme Court.
"We have always believed that the ultimate legality of our Choice Scholarship Program would be decided by the federal courts under the United States Constitution. This could very well be simply a case of delayed gratification," said Kevin Larsen, president of the Douglas County School District Board of Education.
The Colorado case stems from a lawsuit filed by parents and groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and Taxpayers for Public Education. They said the Choice Scholarship Program vouchers violate state constitutional provisions barring the use of taxpayer money to fund religious schools.
"When I heard that the district wanted to take public tax dollars intended for the education of our students in Colorado, it just seemed so wrong to me," said Cindra Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education.
The Douglas County initiative offered up to 500 students about $4,600 each in state funds for tuition at 23 private schools, including 16 religious ones.
"Parents are free to send their children to private religious schools if they wish, but the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed today that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it," ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in a statement.
Supporters contend that the vouchers simply provide parents a choice of where to send their children to school and do not divert any money away from public schools. They have argued that parents and children who want a religious education are being discriminated against and that they're owed relief under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"We will see as the clash of views continues in the courts what emerges. But the beauty of our judicial system is that from that clash the truth emerges, and we believe the truth remains to be discovered," said Craig Richardson, director of the Douglas County School District Board of Education.
The decision from Colorado's Supreme Court justices perplexed some of the attorneys involved in the case because on one hand they ruled 6-1 that the petitioners lacked standing to challenge the voucher program. However, the justices ruled 4-3 that the voucher program violated the state constitution.
Attorneys for Douglas County said they are analyzing what the split means.