Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

536 U.S. 639, 122 S. Ct. 2460 (2002)



Where a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause. A program that shares these features permits government aid to reach religious institutions only by way of the deliberate choices of numerous individual recipients. The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual recipient, not to the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits. If numerous private choices, rather than the single choice of a government, determine the distribution of aid, pursuant to neutral eligibility criteria, then a government cannot, or at least cannot easily, grant special favors that might lead to a religious establishment.


Ohio's Pilot Project Scholarship Program gave educational choices to families in any Ohio school district that was under state control pursuant to a federal-court order. The program provided tuition aid for certain students in the Cleveland City School District, the only covered district, to attend participating public or private schools of their parents' choosing and tutorial aid for students who chose to remain enrolled in public school. Both religious and nonreligious schools in the district could participate, as could public schools in adjacent school districts. Tuition aid was distributed to parents according to financial need, and where the aid was being spent depended solely upon where parents chose to enroll their children. The number of tutorial assistance grants provided to students remaining in public school had to equal the number of tuition aid scholarships. In the 1999-2000 school year, 82% of the participating private schools had a religious affiliation, none of the adjacent public schools participated, and 96% of the students participating in the scholarship program were enrolled in religiously affiliated schools. Sixty percent of the students were from families at or below the poverty line. Cleveland schoolchildren also had the option of enrolling in community schools, which were funded under state law but run by their own school boards and received twice the per-student funding as participating private schools, or magnet schools, which were public schools emphasizing a particular subject area, teaching method, or service, and for which the school district received the same amount per student as it did for a student enrolled at a traditional public school. Ohio taxpayers sought to enjoin the program on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause. A federal district court granted them summary judgment, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.


Did the Pilot Project Scholarship Program of Ohio violate the Establishment Clause?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Pilot Project Scholarship Program did not offend the establishment of religion clause because the program was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system. Furthermore, the Court ruled that Program was entirely neutral with respect to religion. According to the Court, the Program provided benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. As such, the Court averred that the Program permitted such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. Thus, the Court held that the Program was one of true private choice.

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