Civil liberties groups file lawsuit to block school vouchers in Nevada

Three civil liberties organizations recently filed suit in Nevada District Court to challenge a school voucher program signed into law last June by Nevada’s Republican governor. 

The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued on behalf of a group of parents, clergy and other taxpayers who oppose the program’s effort to divert state funds to private, religious schools.

The ACLU and Americans United did not return phone calls or emails from the American Media Institute seeking comment.

“Parents have a right to send their children to religious schools, but they are not entitled to do so at taxpayers’ expense. The voucher program violates the Nevada Constitution’s robust protections against the use of public funds for religious education,” Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said in a press release. “This program allows public money to be spent at intuitions which operate with sectarian missions and goals and impart sectarian curricula. This is exactly what the Nevada Constitution forbids.”

Under the law signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, parents of students enrolled in public school for at least 100 days may transfer their children to participating private schools, including religious schools, and are eligible to receive thousands of dollars in public education funds to pay for tuition, textbooks and other associated costs. The funds will be disbursed through education savings accounts, and there are no restrictions on how participating schools can use the money.

The lawsuit argues that the funding scheme violates Article XI, Section 10, of the Nevada Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for any sectarian purpose. The lawsuit also claims that the program runs afoul of Article XI, Section 2, which requires the legislature to provide for a uniform system of common schools.

“The voucher program will use taxpayer dollars for religious education and indoctrination at a number of religious schools, many of which discriminate in admissions and employment,”  Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a press release. “The program would be a huge loss for religious liberty if implemented.”

Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, said in the same release, “Nevada’s Constitution makes clear that the state may not fund religious instruction or religious discrimination. The voucher program flouts this constitutional prohibition. Nevada’s parents, students, and taxpayers deserve better.”

Gov. Sandoval’s press department did not return emails from the American Media Institute seeking comment but did say in a written statement posted to his website that he requested Nevada’s Attorney General, Adam Laxalt, to use all resources available to seek an expedited hearing on the suit.

“More than 2,000 Nevada families have applied for an education savings account in order to take control of their child’s future in education,” Sandoval said. “It is clear that parents want the freedom to choose the best school to meet the needs of their students.”

The statement went on to say the uncertainty and legal gridlock created by this lawsuit would significantly affect student success.

“I believe it is in the best interest of the state and our education system to avoid these costly legal battles by seeking an expedited hearing on this matter and, if necessary, a final ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court,” Sandoval said. “This will allow students, parents, educators and the state to move forward and properly direct our focus toward collectively creating a system that provides children with the resources and learning environment they need to thrive and succeed.”