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Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002)


School is back in session, and many students across the country have begun work in schools their parents selected for them using vouchers. Does the First Amendment prohibit the government from giving parents public money to pay for tuition at private, religious schools? The Supreme Court ruled on the voucher issue in the 2002 case of Zelman v. Simmons- Harris.



In the landmark case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), the Supreme Court considered Ohio’s Pilot Project Scholarship Program. This program gives tuition money (known as vouchers) to parents in the Cleveland City School District to allow them to send their children to public or private schools of their choice. The money, which is provided by taxpayers, could therefore go to religious as well as non-religious schools. In the 2000 school year, 96 percent of those using vouchers chose religious schools.

A group of Ohio taxpayers objected to the program on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

In a 5-4 opinion, the Court held that the program does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Court reasoned that religious institutions receive public funds only through the choices of private citizens. Therefore, it is the individual people who receive the money for their children’s education. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, “The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion…It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice.”

Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Why did the Supreme Court rule that the Cleveland’s voucher program is constitutional?
  2. Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s decision? Why or why not?
  3. In his dissent, Justice Stevens wrote, “Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.” Do you agree? Why or why not?