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Editorial: A victory for poor kids and the First Amendment

Arizona Daily Wildcat
January 29, 1999
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he First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the establishment of a state religion. Occasionally, laws are challenged for violating this clause. Unfortunately, some of these challenges are by groups who contort the clause out of proportion to substantiate dubious claims. These lawsuits, if won, threaten to ruin the meaning of the First Amendment.

Recently, the Arizona Education Association, People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and other groups challenged the constitutionality of an Arizona state law allowing $500 tax credits for individuals who contribute to scholarships for children to attend private schools. These groups insisted that the law "funded and established religion."

Only by desperately stretching the facts could these groups characterize the law as "establishing" or "funding" a state religion. The tax credit allows individuals to donate their money to any private school scholarship, not just one religious denomination. A parent who wished to donate $500 to an sectarian private school would be equally entitled to the tax credit. This hardly establishes one state religion.

More critically, tax credits are desperately needed to give scholarships to poor but hard-working kids who want to attend the best schools. Allowing youths from the lower or middle echelons of society to mingle with those who by birth start out at the top is a critical means of keeping the social system of this nation from stratifying.

Fortunately, on Wednesday, January 26, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of this tax credit. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Thomas A. Zlacket stated that the program's "primary effect" is not to fund religion but to "encourage the development of educational settings that would invigorate learning, improve academic achievement, and provide additional choices to parents and children."

Regarding Arizona's constitution, which prohibits the state from funding religious organizations, Zlaket wrote that there is no indication that the authors of the Arizona Constitution "intended to divorce completely any hint of religion from all conceivably state-related functions, nor would such a goal be realistically attainable in today's world."

This is a move in the right direction. Last fall, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers. The Supreme Court gave its approval by refusing to hear the appeal.

There is now a similar bill in the Arizona State Senate. With the Wisconsin decision as precedent and the encouraging Arizona Supreme Court decision approving tax credits for private school scholarship contributions, let's hope vouchers get the go-ahead in

Arizona. We need another victory for the First Amendment and for the little guy, the one who can't afford to attend a private school.