Zelman v. Simmons-Harris/Dissent Stevens

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Justice Stevens, dissenting.

Is a law that authorizes the use of public funds to pay for the indoctrination of thousands of grammar school children in particular religious faiths a “law respecting an establishment of religion” within the meaning of the First Amendment? In answering that question, I think we should ignore three factual matters that are discussed at length by my colleagues.

First, the severe educational crisis that confronted the Cleveland City School District when Ohio enacted its voucher program is not a matter that should affect our appraisal of its constitutionality. In the 1999—2000 school year, that program provided relief to less than five percent of the students enrolled in the district’s schools. The solution to the disastrous conditions that prevented over 90 percent of the student body from meeting basic proficiency standards obviously required massive improvements unrelated to the voucher program. [1] Of course, the emergency may have given some families a powerful motivation to leave the public school system and accept religious indoctrination that they would otherwise have avoided, but that is not a valid reason for upholding the program.

Second, the wide range of choices that have been made available to students within the public school system has no bearing on the question whether the State may pay the tuition for students who wish to reject public education entirely and attend private schools that will provide them with a sectarian education. The fact that the vast majority of the voucher recipients who have entirely rejected public education receive religious indoctrination at state expense does, however, support the claim that the law is one “respecting an establishment of religion.” The State may choose to divide up its public schools into a dozen different options and label them magnet schools, community schools, or whatever else it decides to call them, but the State is still required to provide a public education and it is the State’s decision to fund private school education over and above its traditional obligation that is at issue in these cases. [2]

Third, the voluntary character of the private choice to prefer a parochial education over an education in the public school system seems to me quite irrelevant to the question whether the government’s choice to pay for religious indoctrination is constitutionally permissible. Today, however, the Court seems to have decided that the mere fact that a family that cannot afford a private education wants its children educated in a parochial school is a sufficient justification for this use of public funds.

For the reasons stated by Justice Souter and Justice Breyer, I am convinced that the Court’s decision is profoundly misguided. Admittedly, in reaching that conclusion I have been influenced by my understanding of the impact of religious strife on the decisions of our forbears to migrate to this continent, and on the decisions of neighbors in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East to mistrust one another. Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.

I respectfully dissent.


^ . Ohio is currently undergoing a major overhaul of its public school financing pursuant to an order of the Ohio Supreme Court in DeRolph v. State, 93 Ohio St. 3d 309, 754 N. E. 2d 1184 (2001). The Court ought, at least, to allow that reform effort and the district’s experimentation with alternative public schools to take effect before relying on Cleveland’s educational crisis as a reason for state financed religious education.

^ . The Court suggests that an education at one of the district’s community or magnet schools is provided “largely at state expense.” Ante, at 19, n. 6. But a public education at either of these schools is provided entirely at State expense–as the State is required to do.