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. 


The State of Ohio established the pilot program to provide educational choices to families with children who reside in the Cleveland City School District. Cleveland's public schools had been among the worst performing public schools in the nation. The program provided tuition aid for students to attend a participating public or private school of their parent's choosing and tutorial aid for students who chose to remain enrolled in public school. Respondents challenged the Pilot Project Scholarship Program, Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §§ 3313.974-3313.979 (Anderson 1999 and Supp. 2000), as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. They were granted summary judgment. That judgment was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Petitioners sought review and judgment was reversed.


Does the pilot program offend the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution?




The Court held that the program was entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provided benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permitted such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program was therefore a program of true private choice. In keeping with an unbroken line of decisions rejecting challenges to similar programs, the Court held that the program did not offend the Establishment Clause.

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