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Church-state debate over vouchers hits high court

– The Indiana Supreme Court took up the battle over state-paid, private school vouchers Wednesday, parsing over whether the program benefits religious institutions directly or is just an incidental benefit of educational choice.

The justices were active in asking questions about the constitutionality of the program, while also appearing skeptical about overturning the law.

“The purpose of the legislation has primarily to do with education – not fostering religion,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson said.

But opponents argue 97 percent of the participating schools are religious in nature, and they receive a direct benefit in the form of millions of dollars.

“Here the state is directly paying for the teaching of religion,” said John West, the attorney arguing against vouchers.

Legislators passed the voucher law in 2011. It is the most expansive program in the country because its income guidelines are wide and students from all schools – not just failing schools – are eligible. A family of four, for instance, can make up to $62,000 and still qualify for tuition assistance.

New data released Tuesday showed more than 9,000 students are going to private schools, using $38 million worth of state-paid vouchers.

The Indiana State Teachers Association and a host of plaintiffs filed suit against the program a few months after its passage. They claim it will drain resources from public schools and that tax money should not be used to support religious education.

Mark GiaQuinta, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools’ board, attended the hearing Wednesday and wished there was more evidence presented to illustrate the practical impact the law is having on districts.

He pointed out that FWCS is losing kids from top-rated schools and at a much higher rate than in rural counties without private schools. He said that if the trend continues, eventually the district will have trouble meeting the needs of the remaining students.

And GiaQuinta scoffed at the notion that none of the money benefits religion.

“I went to Catholic school. I know how much we prayed,” he said. “The only thing they aren’t praying for as much now is money, because they are getting it from the taxpayers.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that state vouchers for parochial students don’t violate the U.S. Constitution. But the ISTA lawsuit is based on the Indiana Constitution, which has different language.

The justices focused quickly on the provision of the Indiana Constitution saying “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

Justice Robert Rucker questioned whether the money was benefiting the schools or the kids and parents.

“Any money that winds up in the coffers of a religious institution is only there because of a decision by a parent and student,” said Thomas Fisher, arguing on behalf of the Indiana Attorney General’s Office.

Justice Mark Massa also asked several questions about whether a decision in this case could negatively affect millions of dollars in state money going to college scholarships at private, religious colleges such as the University of Notre Dame. West seemed to wrestle with explaining the distinction between scholarships used for a voluntary college education and vouchers used for mandatory K-12 education.