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Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Citation. 536 U.S. 639, 122 S.Ct. 2460, 153 L.Ed.2d 604 (2002).

Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff challenged Defendant’s school tuition program, arguing it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

State tuition programs which allow parents the choice to send their children to religious private schools does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.


The state of Ohio established a program in Cleveland City School District, one of the worst performing school district’s in the country. The program provided tuition aid for students to attend any private school, including religious, so long as the school was located within the boundaries of the covered district and met the statewide education standards. Aid was distributed based on financial aid. Plaintiffs brought suit to enjoin the program, arguing it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.


Whether the Ohio school tuition program violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.


No. The Ohio school tuition program does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.


Justice Stevens

Today, the Court seems to have decided that the mere fact that a family cannot afford a private education and wants its child educated in a religious school is sufficient justification for this use of public funds.

Justice Souter

We have previously held that no tax in any amount can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions. The Court is ignoring this precedent. Doctrinal bankruptcy has been reached today.

Justice Breyer

I write separately to emphasize the risk that publicly financed voucher programs pose in terms of religiously based social conflict. Parental choice does not help the taxpayer who does not want to finance the religious education of children.


Justice O’Connor

Today’s decision does not mark a dramatic break from the past. Federal dollars already reach religious affiliated organizations. Here too is truly an exercise of private choice.

Justice Thomas

I can accept that the Fourteenth Amendment protects religious liberty rights. But I cannot accept its use to oppose neutral programs of school choice through incorporation of the Establishment Clause. I write to question whether it should be applied to the states because it distorts our constitutional values and disserves those in the greatest need.


This program is true private choice and is thus constitutional. The program is neutral in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted undertaking by the state to provide educational opportunities to children of a failed school district. Benefits are available to all families on neutral terms, without reference to religion. There are no financial incentives that skew the program toward religious schools. It does not offend the Establishment Clause.

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