Zelman v. Simmons-Harris Case Brief

Facts of the case

Ohio’s Pilot Project Scholarship Program provides tuition aid in the form of vouchers for certain students in the Cleveland City School District to attend participating public or private schools of their parent’s choosing. Both religious and nonreligious schools in the district may participate. Tuition aid is distributed to parents according to financial need, and where the aid is spent depends solely upon where parents choose to enroll their children. In the 1999-2000 school year 82 percent of the participating private schools had a religious affiliation and 96 percent 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. A group of Ohio taxpayers sought to enjoin the program on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause. The District Court granted them summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Why is the case important?

The Cleveland public schools were performing badly, and in an effort to resolve this issue, the state of Ohio put into effect a school voucher plan under which parents could opt to enroll their children in private schools taking part in the program. Since a great majority of the private schools were affiliated to one or other religious group, Ohio taxpayers filed an action against the program pleading violation of the Establishment Clause.


Is a school voucher program which allows parents to send their children to a private school in violation of the Establishment Clause, where the vast majority of participating private schools are affiliated to religious groups?


(Rehnquist, C.J.) No. A school voucher program which allows parents to send their children to a private school is not in violation of the Establishment Clause, where the vast majority of participating private schools are affiliated to religious groups. The purpose of the program in this case is secular, without a doubt. It is meant to assist poor children in a failing public school to complete their education. The issue then is whether the program advances or inhibits religion. The Court’s ruling in Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388 (1983) and following related cases shows that a government aid project cannot be easily defeated with reference to the Establishment Clause provided it gives no deference to religion, and makes aid available to a class of citizens who by their own voluntary and independent choice channel that aid to religious schools. Such is the case in this program which is therefore supported by the constitution. It favors no religion nor even religion in the abstract, it is part of a state plan to make education available to children in a school district where such opportunity is largely absent, is part of a more general and multi-pronged action plan, and shows no discrimination towards the recipients of the educational aid except on financial grounds, in that poor families receive greater preference for admission and more aid. It allows all schools irrespective of religious affiliation to participate, including public schools in the adjacent district. It not only does not incentivize private schools, but in fact provides disincentives. A participating private school gets only half the aid a community school receives, and only a third of that given to magnet schools. Adjacent public schools get two to three times this amount. Families which choose to send their children to private schools too have disincentives in that they have to contribute towards the school tuition, whereas in public, community or magnet schools tuition is completely free. This is therefore in no sense a government endorsement of religion. Another important point is that the program gives ample opportunity for parents to choose secular educational options if preferred, among the various alternatives offered such as continuing to send their child to the same public school, using tutorial aid paid for by the program in public school, obtaining a scholarship to attend a religious private school, use the same scholarship to attend a non-religious school, enroll in a community college or in a magnet school. Thus the Establishment Clause is not violated in the sense that Ohio in no sense promotes or coerces the parents to send children to religious schools. The other argument of the taxpayers that 96 percent of the scholarship recipients were in religious schools, which violates the constitution, is already addressed in Mueller. Just because most private schools in a certain area or at a certain time are religious, or why this is so, or most scholarship recipients choose to enroll at a religious school is not the touchstone to decide on the constitutionality of a school district program. Thus the Ohio program is neutral to religion, uses only financial need and geographical location with respect to a particular school district as criteria, and enables true and full choice to the beneficiaries of such aid as to the options available to utilize the aid. It is thus a program which protects true private choice. The verdict is reversed.


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 .

  • Advocates: Robert H. Chanin Argued the cause for the respondents Simmons-Harris, et al David J. Young Argued the cause for the private petitioners Marvin E. Frankel Argued the cause for the respondents Gatton, et al Judith L. French Columbus, Ohio, argued the cause for the State petitioners Theodore B. Olson Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners David L. Young
  • Petitioner: Zelman
  • Respondent: Simmons-Harris
  • DECIDED BY:Rehnquist Court
  • Location: The Cleveland Metropolitan School District
Citation: 536 US 639 (2002)
Argued: Feb 20, 2002
Decided: Jun 27, 2002
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris Case Brief