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ACLU launches lawsuit against Nevada school voucher law

Updated Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015 | 3:11 p.m.

Nevada’s sweeping new school voucher program is facing a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which claims it violates state laws prohibiting public money being used for religious purposes.

“The education savings account law passed this last legislative session tears down the walls separating church and state erected in Nevada’s constitution,” said Tod Story, executive director of the Nevada ACLU. “So today we have filed a lawsuit to stop this unconstitutional program.”

The program, passed as SB302 by lawmakers earlier this year, goes far beyond similar voucher programs elsewhere in the country. Instead of only being available to certain families based on income or special needs, it is available to any family whose child is attending public school. Those who qualify will receive around $5,000 to spend on things like private school tuition, tutoring or distance education.

The program has proved popular in the short time the Nevada Treasurer’s office has allowed parents to apply for it. In just a few weeks of open enrollment, more than 2,500 parents have applied.

But now the ACLU is seeking an injunction to stop the state from disbursing public funds under the program before the law officially takes effect at the start of next year.

“The treasurer’s office has taken many steps to actively implement this program,” said Amy Rose, legal director for the Nevada ACLU. “I think it’s very clear that if we don't stop this, [the money] will go to private religious schools."

Central to the debate is Nevada’s laws governing the use of public funds, and whether parents can take taxpayer dollars to use at schools that are often explicitly religious in nature. In its lawsuit, the ACLU included 10 pages of examples of religious private schools in the state that require students to learn religious doctrine.

Spring Valley Christian Academy, one of the Las Vegas private schools cited by the ACLU, outlines in its school handbook the “Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible,” where students are told to repeat the words “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word.”

The ACLU points to the Nevada Constitution, which states, “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.”

They also accuse state lawmakers of intentionally wording SB302 to skirt existing state law, like Nevada Revised Statute 387.045, which states, “No portion of the public school funds shall in any way be segregated, divided or set apart for the use or benefit of any sectarian or secular society or association.”

SB302 specifically exempts the program from that part of the NRS.

Reaction to the announcement was swift, especially from conservative groups and politicians in support of the program. Several issued statements criticizing the action.

State Treasurer Dan Schwartz said in his statement: “The ACLU certainly has the right to air their issues in court. But we believe that SB 302 is clearly aimed at aiding and improving our children’s education, whether it be in public or private schools, secular or non-sectarian institutions. The bill’s intent is to give parents the choice on how and where their children should be educated."

Victor Joecks, of the right-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute, called it "a shame that Nevada’s ACLU would attempt to prevent these parents from obtaining better educations for their children."

Republican State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer accused the ACLU of wanted to go "back to a system of hard zoning, forcing poor and minority students into chronically failing schools and furthering cycles of generational poverty."

“Republicans passed education savings accounts this year to break those cycles and give every child a chance at a high-quality education," he said.

Institute for Justice attorney Mark Keller said the libertarian organization, which helped craft the program, would fight the lawsuit.

“We worked closely with the state legislature throughout the drafting process to ensure the program’s constitutionality, and we fully intend to defend it against this baseless and cynical lawsuit,” Keller said. “Nevada's Education Savings Account (ESA) Program was enacted to help parents and children whose needs are not being met in their current public schools, and we will work with them to intervene in this lawsuit and defeat it.”

Crystal Van Kempen-McClanahan, principal at Mountain View Christian Academy said private school administrators knew this day would come.

“We were told to expect it, so obviously we weren’t surprised," she said, noting that voucher programs have been upheld in other states. "We’re certainly hopeful that it's going to be defended successfully here as well.”

She, like many proponents of the program, feels the lawsuit is baseless because parents make the ultimate decision about where the money goes, not the state.

“Whose individual rights are being trampled on?" she said. "The money isn't even going to us. It's going to the parents, and they have the right to choose."

Named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are a number of local activists, including Ruby Duncan, an African-American woman whose advocacy on behalf of welfare mothers during the 1970s led to the Clark County School District naming a North Las Vegas school after her.

“There are so many poor parents in the state of Nevada,” she said. “They will not be treated fairly under SB302.”

The lawsuit in Nevada comes as other states have examined their voucher programs.

In June, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the state’s voucher program, but other states have recently upheld theirs, including Alabama and North Carolina.

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