A judge Monday declined to halt Indiana's broad new school voucher program, saying the law was "religion-neutral" and likely to be upheld.
The measure passed this year by the Republican-dominated General Assembly and signed into law by GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels is the nation's broadest private school voucher program. A group of teachers and religious leaders backed by the Indiana State Teachers Association is challenging it, claiming it violates the state constitution by providing public money to religious institutions.
However, in his ruling denying a temporary injunction, Marion Superior Court Judge Michael Keele wrote the law "is religion-neutral and was enacted `for the benefit' of students, not religious institutions or activities."
"It permits taxpayer funds to be paid to religious schools only upon the private individual choices of parents," Keele wrote in siding with the state.
Attorneys for the state argued that a temporary injunction could have forced students who received vouchers to leave their private schools just as the academic year was beginning and to scramble to re-enroll in public schools.
They also contented the voucher system is legal because the state isn't directly funding parochial schools directly. Instead, it gives scholarship vouchers to parents, who can choose which school to use them at.
"I am thrilled with the court's ruling, which will ensure that I and other parents all over Indiana will have true educational choice this school year," said parent Heather Coffy, whose three children all received vouchers to attend Roman Catholic schools.
Coffy was one of two Indianapolis women who were allowed to join the case. They are represented by the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based school choice advocate.
The law allows even middle-class parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private secular and religious schools. About 2,800 Indiana students have been approved for the state-funded scholarships, and Attorney General Greg Zoeller said more than 150 of them used the vouchers to enroll in private schools that started last week.
In declining to halt the law, Keele wrote that the Indiana Supreme Court has long understood it's up to the General Assembly _ not the courts, taxpayers or school corporations _ to decide how Indiana children should be educated. In a ruling two years ago, the state's highest court also said education policy was a political question off limits to judicial intervention.
Keele ruled only on the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction. Their complaint challenging the law hasn't gone to trial yet.
Indiana State Teachers Association President Nate Schnellenberger said the union will take a few days to evaluate Keele's decision.
"Obviously, we're disappointed in the judge's ruling. We think the case has merits," Schnellenberger said.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, named as a defendant in the case, said the ruling was "in the best interest of Indiana children."
One of the plaintiff's attorneys, John West, argued before Keele last week that vouchers helped religious schools recruit new students _ and potentially new members _ they otherwise wouldn't have reached.
A message was left at West's Washington, D.C., law office seeking comment on the ruling.