DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado's Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a controversial school voucher program in a Denver suburb violates the state's constitution because it provides funding for students to attend religious schools.
The Colorado Court of Appeals had previously upheld the system first proposed four years ago by Douglas County, which granted taxpayer-funded scholarships to up to 500 qualifying elementary, middle, and high school students for tuition at 23 private schools, including 16 religious ones.
The state Supreme Court noted that when opponents first filed suit against the Choice Scholarship Program in June 2011, three months after it was approved by the county's school board, some 93 percent of recipients were set to attend religious schools.
"Of the 120 high school students, all but one chose to attend a religious school," the Supreme Court ruling said.
It said Colorado's constitution features "broad, unequivocal language" forbidding the state from using public money to fund religious schools.
"Yet aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP (voucher program) does. The CSP essentially functions as a recruitment program, teaming with various religious schools ... and encouraging students to attend those schools via the inducement of scholarships," the ruling said, overturning the February 2013 appeals court ruling.
"The program's lack of vital safeguards only bolsters our conclusion that it is constitutionally infirm."
Rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado had called for the program to be struck down, saying it illegally sought to divert millions of taxpayer dollars.
Supporters said they were disappointed in the outcome.
Douglas County Board of Education President Kevin Larsen said he was not surprised by Monday's ruling, the Denver Post reported, and he said county officials would likely appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We have always believed that the ultimate legality of our ... program would be decided by the federal courts under the United States Constitution," the newspaper quoted Larsen as telling reporters. "This could very well be simply a case of delayed gratification."
The Denver-based Independence Institute public policy think tank called it a legal setback to a "groundbreaking" program.
"This decision is difficult to swallow, especially for students who are struggling in their current school to reach their full potential," Pam Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center at the Institute, said in a statement.
"Families deserve access to more educational options."
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Eric Walsh)