Americans United for Separation of Church and State has criticized the ruling by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn et al., dismissing a challenge to tax aid to religious schools in Arizona.
In a 5-4 ruling on April 4, 2011, the court turned back a legal challenge to an Arizona scheme that allows taxpayers to take a 100 percent credit for donations to “school tuition organizations” that fund religious and other private schools. The court said the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case.
“This misguided ruling betrays the public school system by directing tax dollars to religious schools,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. “The court, with the full support of the Obama administration, has slammed the courthouse door in the face of Americans who don’t want their tax dollars to subsidize religion.”
Under the controversial program, nearly 92 percent of the funds collected have gone for tuition at religious schools. In 2009, two Arizona newspapers reported that much of the largess was going to well-off families – even though the program was pitched as a way to help poor and minority students.
Taxpayers challenged the plan as a violation of church-state separation.
The Obama administration not only argued in favor of the Arizona funding scheme, it advocated denying taxpayers’ right to challenge the program in court. Furthermore, the Solicitor General’s Office at the U.S. Department of Justice requested and was granted 10 minutes to argue in favor of the plan during oral argument before the justices.
The court ruled that taxpayers could not challenge the plan because the aid was distributed through a tax credit, not a direct appropriation. “The court bought into a legal fiction that tax credits are not state aid to private schools,” Lynn said. “Any American working on a tax return right now knows the generous result of a tax credit.” Added Lynn, “This decision puts taxpayers’ rights to challenge many government subsidies to religion in extreme jeopardy.” Lynn noted that the Arizona program has been plagued with problems. For example, the plan allows tax aid to go to schools that mandate participation in religious instruction and worship.
Americans United’s brief in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn was joined by the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty and the Interfaith Alliance Foundation.