Nevada fights against ACLU suit over voucher-like program

AP News
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Posted: Oct 19, 2015 9:18 PM

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada is fighting back against a lawsuit that could dismantle the state's sweeping new school choice program, saying the program is neutral on religion even if parents can apply public funds to parochial schools.

The Nevada Attorney General's Office filed a motion Monday asking a judge to dismiss a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that challenges Education Savings Accounts. The program, which is considered the broadest school choice program in the country because it's not limited by factors such as family income, allows parents to claim most of their child's per-pupil state education funding and use it toward private school tuition or other qualified education expenses.

"The opponents of parental choice are desperately trying to stop Nevada's innovative and ambitious program that has already garnered praise and imitation in other states, before it sweeps the nation," Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt said.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Nov. 25 in Clark County.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued in August, arguing that the new law violates the so-called "Blaine Amendment" in the Nevada Constitution that bans using public funds for sectarian purposes. Other states have similar language in their constitutions, and the outcome of the Nevada fight could inform cases there.

"Parents have a right to send their children to religious schools, but they are not entitled to do so at taxpayers' expense," ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Tod Story said when the lawsuit was filed.

Story said Monday that that ACLU had received the motion and was reviewing it, but said they were confident that the program was unconstitutional, regardless of the state's arguments.

"We will continue to vigorously protect the rights of Nevadans guaranteed under the Nevada Constitution," he said.

The attorney general's office argues that the program doesn't provide money directly to sectarian institutions but to parents, who can choose to use it at a religious school or elsewhere. The state also argues that giving money to all families except those who prefer a religious school would unfairly burden religious parents.

"This lawsuit asks our courts to twist Nevada's Constitution in ways never imagined, much less intended, by our framers," Laxalt said in a statement.

The Republican-controlled Nevada Legislature passed a bill this spring creating Education Savings Accounts, in spite of Democratic opposition. While money is not expected to start flowing from state coffers to parents until April, the state treasurer's office has already collected about 3,600 applications for the program.

Students must be enrolled in public school for at least 100 days before they're eligible to participate, prompting some parents to move their children from private to public school this year so they'll qualify. Gov. Brian Sandoval has called for expediting the case, pointing the uncertainty it's caused for those families.

"Whether you support the law or not, it is in the best interest of students, educators, parents, and schools to have a clear and expedient interpretation that settles these challenges, so that we can move forward as one Nevada where all students have the opportunity to grow and succeed," said Sandoval's spokeswoman, Mari St. Martin.

The lawsuit is one of two filed so far against the program. The Nevada Attorney General's Office has partnered with former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement and his law firm, Bancroft, to fight the battle.

Clement has argued more cases before the U.S. Supreme Court since 2000 than any other lawyer. He represented states challenging Obamacare and represented Hobby Lobby in its bid to not pay for insurance covering certain contraceptives.

The attorney general's office says the state needs Clement because the eyes of the nation are on the program.