University of Southern California

Reading Zelman: The Triumph of Pluralism, and Its Effect on Liberty, Equality, and Choice

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Article by Joseph P. Viteritti
From Volume 76, Number 5 (July, 2003)

In June 2002, the United States Supreme Court approved an Ohio program that made available publicly supported vouchers for children in Cleveland to attend private (nonsectarian) and religious schools. Writing for a five-member majority in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Chief Justice William Rehnquist held that the Ohio program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it (1) has a valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children; (2) is neutral with respect to religion and provides assistance to a broad class of citizens; and (3) provides aid to religious institutions only as a result of independent decisions made by the parents of the school children participating in the program. The Chief Justice further explained that the ruling was consistent with a line of judicial reasoning dating back to 1983, when the Supreme Court approved an education tax deduction adopted in Minnesota. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor took a broader view of First Amendment jurisprudence, indicating that the majority ruling in Zelman was consistent with case law that allowed tax exemptions and other forms of government aid for religious institutions. Justice Clarence Thomas also concurred with the majority. Citing Brown v. Board of Education, Justice Thomas emphasized that the program in question was a well-intentioned attempt by the state “to provide greater educational opportunity for underprivileged minority students.” He further opined that incorporating the Establishment Clause to prohibit the kind of educational choice that the Ohio program provides would have the ironic effect of employing the Fourteenth Amendment to curtail liberty rights protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

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