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Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Citation. 536 U.S. 639 (2002)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The State of Ohio established a pilot program to provide educational choices to families with children living in Cleveland School District, mainly targeting low-income children. The program was challenged for violation of the Establishment Clause.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Where a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause.


The State of Ohio has established a pilot program designed to provide educational choices to families with children who reside in the Cleveland City School District. There are more than 75,000 children enrolled in the Cleveland City School District. The majority of these children are from low-income and minority families. Few of these families enjoy the means to send their children to any school other than an inner-city public school. For many years, however, Cleveland’s public schools have been among the worst performing public schools in the Nation. The pilot program provides financial assistance to families in any Ohio school district that is or has been under federal court order requiring supervision and operational management of the district by the state superintendent. Cleveland is the only Ohio school district to fall within that category.


Does the state pilot program designed to provide educational choices to families with children who reside in the Cleveland City School District violate the Constitution?


No, the Ohio’s pilot program designed to provide educational choices to families with children who reside in the Cleveland City School District violate the Constitution does not violate the Constitution. No financial incentives skew the program toward religious schools because the aid is allocated on the basis of neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion, and is made available to both religious and secular beneficiaries on a nondiscriminatory basis. Because the program is entirely neutral with respect to religion and provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, it is constitutional.


Justice Souter

Evidence shows that almost two out of three families using vouchers to send their children to religious schools did not embrace the religion of those schools. The families stated that they did not choose the schools because they wished their children to by proselytized in a religion not their own, or in any religion, but because of educational opportunity. The $2,500 cap that the program places on tuition for participating low-income pupils has the effect of curtailing the participation of nonreligious schools. Such would require that massive financial support be made available to religion as to disserve every objective of the Establishment Clause even more than the present scheme does.


Justice Thomas

Religious schools, like other private schools, achieve far better educational results than their public counterparts. But the success of religious and private schools is in the end beside the point, because the State has a constitutional right to experiment with a variety of different programs to promote educational opportunity. That Ohio’s program includes successful schools simply indicates that such reform can provide improved education to underprivileged urban children.


The program challenged here is a program of true private choice and is thus constitutional. The Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted undertaking by the State of Ohio to provide educational opportunities to the children of a failed school district. It confers educational assistance directly to a broad class of individuals defined without reference to religion, any parent of a school-age child who resides in the Cleveland City School District. The program permits the participation of all schools within the district, religious and nonreligious. Adjacent public schools also may participate and have a financial incentive to do so. Program benefits are available to participating families on neutral terms, with no reference to religion. The only preference stated anywhere in the program is a preference for low-income families, who receive greater assistance and are given priority for admission at participating schools.

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