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Federal court judge strikes down Cleveland school voucher program; Ruling says grants result in 'government-sponsored religious indoctrination'


WASHINGTON -- Cleveland's school voucher program, frequently buffeted by a series of conflicting court rulings, suffered another blow yesterday as a federal judge struck it down.

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. of Cleveland ruled that the program "results in government-sponsored religious indoctrination."

The tuition grants paid by the state of Ohio directly to parochial schools, he said, "are unrestricted and can be used for any purpose a school finds necessary," including teaching children religion.

He said that "over 82 percent of the schools participating in the voucher program are religiously affiliated," with some proclaiming that all of their pupils' classroom work is "Christ-centered." A total of 56 private schools take part, and 46 of those are parochial institutions, he said. About 3,800 students receive the aid.

That those schools may provide pupils a better education than is available in public schools, the judge said, does not mean that the program does not promote religion.

Although the Supreme Court has been allowing in recent years more types of public aid to religious institutions or programs, Oliver said the program in Cleveland "is unlike any that the Supreme Court has upheld" but is most like a New York tuition reimbursement scheme the court nullified in 1973.

The Cleveland program, designed to allow children from low-income families to go to private schools, provides up to $2,500 a year per pupil for tuition at those schools. The aid can continue through the eighth grade. "Nearly all state aid will flow to religious institutions," the judge found.

Under challenge in federal and state courts since it began in 1995, the program is operating without court interruption. That is the result of a 5-4 order of the Supreme Court last month, temporarily lifting a ban that Oliver had imposed at a preliminary stage. Yesterday's action was Oliver's final ruling that the program is unconstitutional. He did not put that decision into effect because both sides in the case agreed that the program could continue while new appeals go forward by supporters of vouchers.

Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a leading supporter of voucher and tuition tax credit programs, said: "The U.S. Supreme Court has already rebuked Judge Oliver once. This ruling will also be overturned."

Robert Chanin, general counsel of the National Education Association, a teachers union that opposes voucher plans, praised the ruling, saying it "should have persuasive impact with other courts that consider the issue."

Federal and state courts have issued sharply contradictory rulings over the past several months on public aid to parochial school tuition programs. Programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Arizona have been allowed to proceed, but those in Maine and Vermont have been struck down.

The Supreme Court , although voting to let the Cleveland program continue through the school year, has repeatedly declined to take on a case to resolve the dispute nationwide. It has turned down appeals on opposite sides of the issue on the Milwaukee, Arizona, Maine and Vermont programs.

The Cleveland program, however, appears to be the one most likely to return to the justices for possible review, after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati decides on Oliver's ruling.

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