The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Freedom of Religion

Did the Rehnquist Court rule on the constitutionality of a school voucher program?

Yes, a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a school voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002). The case involved a program that provided tuition assistance to low-income parents. The vast majority of the participating schools in the program were private religious schools. In fact, a majority of the students in the program attended Catholic schools. A constitutional challenge was filed, contending that the state of Ohio violated the Establishment Clause by funding a program that gave substantial benefits to private religious schools. A federal district judge and a federal appeals court ruled that the voucher program violated the Establishment Clause, reasoning that the primary effect of the program was to benefit religion. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, focusing on private choice and neutrality. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the program was one of “true private choice.” He added: “Program benefits are available to participating families on neutral terms, with no reference to religion. The only preference stated anywhere in the program is a preference for low-income families, who receive greater assistance and are given priority for admission at participating schools.”


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