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Let the voucher debate proceed

Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 12:01 am

Aid to religion is not a pertinent issue.

There never should have been any doubt about the constitutionality of Indiana’s school voucher program. Now there isn’t. The state Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the vouchers do not violate the Indiana constitution’s prohibition of spending “for the benefit of” religious institutions.

The nation’s Supreme Court had already ruled, in a 2002 case from Cleveland, that vouchers allowing the spending of public money on private schools do not violate the U.S. Constitution’s requirement for the separation of church and state. The only question was whether the language of the state constitution requires a narrower perspective. Now we know – it does not.

Of course that doesn’t mean the state should have vouchers, merely that it can, a point strongly made by Chief Justice Brent Dickson: “We emphasize that the issues before this court do not include the public policy merits of the school voucher program,” he wrote. “The desirability and efficacy of school choice are matters to be resolved through the political process.”

The ruling does mean that the current debate over that “desirability and efficacy” may now proceed unfettered. Our voucher program is already the most sweeping in the nation, and some members of the General Assembly want to expand it greatly this year. Others, including some supporters, want to take it a little slower since there are only a year’s worth of results. Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, for example wants to study the program for five years before deciding whether it achieves the promised results.

Of equal importance, the state high court has managed to articulate, in a way the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t seem able to, an important aspect of the arm’s-length distance between church and state our system calls for. Government is not to institute a religion, so it is forbidden from passing laws or spending money in a way that favors one religion over another. But it isn’t required to be hostile to religion and refrain from any actions that might encourage our religious expressions. There have been too many efforts to chase religion from our public life, and this ruling is a welcome change.