- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - A Las Vegas judge dismissed claims that Nevada’s sweeping new school choice program violated the state constitution by releasing public funds to religious schools, although the voucher-style program remains on hold over different concerns raised in a separate lawsuit.

Judge Eric Johnson ruled Wednesday in a case against the state over Education Savings Accounts, a program that allows parents to claim the majority of their child’s per-pupil state education funds and use it toward private schooling or other qualifying education expenses. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the measure last year over Democratic objections.

“This is a huge and important step in getting certainty for the thousands of families waiting to participate in Nevada’s ESA program,” said Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican whose office is defending the program. “The Court correctly dismissed these speculative and tenuous claims.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, its Nevada affiliate and Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenged the program in August, saying parents have a right to send their children to religious schools but not at taxpayer expense.

The civil liberties groups say the program will use taxpayer dollars - more than $5,000 per child each year - for religious indoctrination at private schools that can discriminate in admissions and employment. On Wednesday, they said they were disappointed in the decision and were studying it, but hadn’t decided whether to appeal.

“The Nevada Constitution provides robust safeguards for religious liberty to prevent this misuse of public funds, and the Court’s failure to give full effect to these protections is troubling,” said Amy Rose, legal director of the ACLU of Nevada.

The attorney general’s office fought back, arguing that the program doesn’t provide money directly to sectarian institutions but to parents, who can choose to use it at a religious school or elsewhere. The state also argues that giving money to all families except those who prefer a religious school would unfairly burden religious parents.

“This lawsuit asks our courts to twist Nevada’s Constitution in ways never imagined, much less intended, by our framers,” Attorney General Adam Laxalt said in October.

Johnson’s decision is a major win for Republican lawmakers who have touted the program as a groundbreaking reform that provides families a way out of Nevada’s low-ranking public schools. But it’s not out of the woods yet.

A Carson City judge put the program on hold earlier this year after another group filed a lawsuit against it that focused more on inequity and budgetary concerns than religion. State officials were in the middle of implementing the program at the time, with plans to start disbursing money in February.

Plaintiffs in the Carson City case argue the money in Education Savings will provide a windfall to parents who currently have their children in private school and can afford the tuition. But they say payments of about $5,000 a year still aren’t enough to cover the full expenses of attending many private schools, meaning only parents who can afford to cover the difference will be able to participate.

The lawsuit also says the program will support private schools that can decline students based on their academic performance and ability to pay, leaving public schools with a higher concentration of needy students and less money.

The attorney general’s office is appealing the injunction to the Nevada Supreme Court on an expedited timeline.

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