Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

RESPONDENT: Simmons-Harris
LOCATION: The Cleveland Metropolitan School District

DOCKET NO.: 00-1751
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 536 US 639 (2002)
ARGUED: Feb 20, 2002
DECIDED: Jun 27, 2002

David J. Young - Argued the cause for the private petitioners
David L. Young -
Judith L. French - Columbus, Ohio, argued the cause for the State petitioners
Marvin E. Frankel - Argued the cause for the respondents Gatton, et al
Robert H. Chanin - Argued the cause for the respondents Simmons-Harris, et al
Theodore B. Olson - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners

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.


Does Ohio's school voucher program violate the Establishment Clause?

Media for Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 20, 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 27, 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 00-1751, Zelman versus Doris Simmons-Harris.

In 1995, a Federal District Court in Cleveland ordered the Cleveland City School District placed under the control of the State of Ohio.

The Ohio Legislature responded by enacting a number of emergency measures, including the Ohio Pilot Project Scholarship Program.

The program was designed to provide educational choices to poor families in the Cleveland City School District who otherwise had no option but to send their children to a failing public school.

In relevant part the program provides a $2250 scholarship voucher to more than 3000 low-income families with school age children who reside in the district.

Parents are free to use their scholarship voucher at any private school in the district that agrees to accept program students.

Public schools and districts adjacent to the Cleveland City District are also eligible to accept program students though none has agreed to do so.

There are currently 56 private schools participating in the program, 42 of which 82% are private-religious school.

As of the 1999 school year, 96% of the students who received tuition vouchers under the program chose to expand their vouchers at religious school.

Respondents are a group of Ohio taxpayers.

They sued in Federal District Court seeking to enjoin the program on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents; in the divided panel of Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse.

There is no dispute that the program was enacted for the valid nonreligious purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system.

The Establishment Clause question is does whether or not the program has a forbidden effect of the events advancing or inhibiting religion?

We find no such effect.

Our Establishment Clause decisions consistently distinguish government programs that provide a directly to religious schools from programs like the program challenged here of true private choice in which government aid reaches religious schools only by way of numerous independent decisions of numerous private individuals.

Three times we have confronted Establishment Clause challenges to programs of private choice and three times we rejected these challenges.

In Mueller against Allen in 1986, we found no constitutional bar to a Minnesota Program that authorize tax deductions to families of private school student, 96% of whom where enrolled in religious schools.

In Witters against Washington Department of Services for the Blind, we rejected a challenge to a vocational scholarship program that provided tuition aid to students studying at a religious institution to become a pastor, and in Zobrest versus Catalina Foothills School District, we found no constitutional bar to a program for disabled students that provided sign language interpreters to students enrolled in religious schools.

In each of these cases, we stressed the principle of private choice saying that neutral government programs that provide benefits directly to a broad class of private individuals who then themselves choose to direct benefits to religious schools are not readily subject to an Establishment Clause challenge.

We believe that the program challenged here is a program of two private choice consistent with a Mueller line of cases and thus constitutional.

The program is entirely neutral with respect to religion.

All schools in the Cleveland City School District may participate.

This made some schools outside of it.

Benefits are made available to participating families according solely to financial need.

The program further provides substantial opportunities for Cleveland parents to choose non-religious schools for their school-age children.

Respondents point out that 82% of the participating schools are religious school, but that figure is not significant considering that most American Cities contain like proportions of religious private schools.

Nor is it constitutionally significant that 96% of participating students currently attend religious school.

We reject it in identical claim in Mueller where again 96% of the beneficiaries under the challenge program where parents of children enrolled in religious schools.