DENVER — The question of the separation of church and state came before Colorado's Supreme Court Wednesday with arguments about a school voucher program that provides money for students to attend private schools, including religious ones.
Opponents of the program in Douglas County told justices that the vouchers violate state constitutional provisions barring the use of taxpayer money to fund religious schools. The case stems from a lawsuit filed by parents and groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and Taxpayers for Public Education.
Matthew Douglas, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, argued that the Colorado Constitution says "specifically that school districts cannot pay any money to any school controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever."
Supporters of the program told justices the vouchers simply provide parents a choice of where to send their children to school.
They say the program does not harm other students and doesn't take away funding from public school districts, like opponents have argued.
"There is not a nickel from this program that is being diverted from any other school district," said James Lyons, an attorney for the Douglas County School District and its board of education. He said parents can choose to use the vouchers for a school of their choice, and if not, the funds "stay in the Douglas County school system."
The Douglas County voucher initiative, called the Choice Scholarship Program, offered up to 500 students about $4,600 each in state funds for tuition at private schools.
Michael Bindas, another attorney defending the voucher program, said at issue is the rights of parents who want a religious education for their children.
"The equal protection clause prohibits government from making it more difficult for one class of citizens than from all others to seek aid from the government," he said.
The Colorado Supreme Court will issue a ruling later.
A lower appeals court upheld the voucher program last year. That ruling was appealed.
Michael McCarthy, an attorney for the plaintiffs, insisted that the program is detrimental to public schools.
"The injury here is the depletion of a limited fund of moneys that come to these schools from the state in order to fund public education," McCarthy.