Three organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union have filed the expected lawsuit to block Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts program.
The program, essentially a school vouchers program, was challenged as violating the state’s constitutional ban on giving public funds to religious organizations. Many of the private schools most interested in claiming those vouchers are operated by church groups.
The ACLU, its Nevada organization and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the lawsuit in Clark County District Court asking the program be declared unconstitutional and that the treasurer’s office and all others at the state be enjoined from putting any public money into Educational Savings Accounts.
The lawsuit is the first of at least two expected to try block the program.
“Parents have a right to send their children to religious schools but they are not entitled to do so at taxpayers’ expense,” said ACLU Nevada Director Tod Story. “The voucher program violates the Nevada constitution’s robust protection against the use of public funds for religious education.”
The court brief says the program “will unconstitutionally divert millions of dollars in public education funds to private schools — the majority of which are religious.”
That will allow those schools to receive “unlimited amounts of taxpayer funds and use those funds for religious education, indoctrination and discrimination.”
The brief quotes a 1982 Nevada Supreme Court opinion stating “It does not matter that Catholic parents desire their children (be) taught the Catholic doctrines or that Protestants desire their to be instructed in Protestantism. The constitution prohibits the use of any of the public funds for such purposes whether parents wish it or not.”
The 2015 Legislature attempted to get around the constitutional ban by giving the parents of private school students the money instead of sending it directly to the schools. The lawsuit says that doesn’t escape the constitution prohibition because the money still gets paid to a private religious institution.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, chairman of the Finance Committee and a vocal supporter of the legislation, SB302, said the lawsuit is “regrettable.”
“The ACLU today took a regrettable position in support of the status quo,” he said. “Instead of empowering parents to help their children find an educational environment that meets their needs, the ACLU wants to go back to a system of hard zoning, forcing poor and minority students into chronically failing schools and furthering cycles of generational poverty.”
He said the voucher system is the way to prepare Nevada’s children for the future with a high-quality education.
Democrats have decried the program as legally dubious and raised concerns about whether it just helps wealthier families who can already afford private school.
The program is being managed by State Treasurer Dan Schwartz’s office. His chief of staff told the Interim Finance Committee last week they have received more than 2,000 applications from parents to join the program in just three weeks. Parents just a couple of days later protested the requirement all students attend public school for 100 days in order to qualify to leave and take up to $5,000 a year thereafter to help pay the cost of private school tuition. The representative of Southern Nevada’s Catholic diocese urged lawmakers to write regulations eliminating the 100-day rule, which would violate the law.
That requirement was added to the legislation to prevent a fiscal impact of up to $200 million on the state education budget if all students eligible left the public school system and took the money with them.
The treasurer’s office is declined to comment on the suit, referring questions to the attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office said it does not comment on pending litigation.
The civil liberties groups say the program will use taxpayer dollars — more than $5,000 per child each year — for religious indoctrination at private schools that can discriminate in admissions and employment. In a conference call with reporters, they listed practices of Nevada schools that would receive the funds, including daily Bible study and daily Islamic prayer.
“The program would be a huge loss for religious liberty if implemented,” ACLU attorney Heather L. Weaver said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.