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Wednesday
Nov032010

Supreme Court Weighs Arizona's Tax Credit for Private Schools

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court debated an Arizona law Wednesday that allows state residents to receive tax credits for contributions to nonprofit organizations. The groups, in turn, give scholarships to public school students who want to attend private schools.

The Arizona legislature passed the law in 1997 to encourage greater educational choice for disadvantaged elementary school children. Any taxpayer can participate, but parents are forbidden from earmarking a donation for their child.

The law has come under intense criticism, however, from some Arizona taxpayers who say, in practice, most of the nonprofit organizations -- called School Tuition Organizations (STOs) -- that receive the funds only provide aide to students at religious schools.

The taxpayers filed a lawsuit arguing the law is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibiting government actions from favoring one religion over another. The taxpayers argue the policy funnels state money to religious schools.

The justices will have to decide whether the taxpayers have the legal right, or "standing," to bring the case. If the court finds the taxpayers are sufficiently harmed by the policy, it will then decide the constitutional merits of the case.

In most cases, taxpayers do not have the right to challenge government expenditures, but the court has granted exceptions to that rule in cases regarding the Establishment Clause.

Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal argued in court the taxpayers in this case do not fit into such an exception because "not a cent" of their own money goes to fund religion.

But he was challenged by some of the more liberal members of the court.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor brought up the argument of the taxpayers: "Their point is that this tax money does belong to the state" she said, "... either you pay it to the state or you use it for this purpose." 

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