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Voucher case finds support in ’03 ruling

Brown

Last week’s Indiana Supreme Court ruling written by Chief Justice Brent Dickson makes numerous references to a 2003 ruling by the same court – and also written by Dickson.

That case, Embry vs. O’Bannon, challenged the state’s policy of allowing public school teachers to instruct parochial students in classes unavailable at the parochial school. Examples included phys ed, art, music and computer skills. The public schools that provided the instruction benefited because the parochial students were included in the individual public schools’ count of enrollment for school funding purposes.

Four Hoosiers sued, contending the practice violated the state’s constitutional ban on using taxpayer money to advance religion. But the state’s high court supported the dual enrollment policy.

The voucher policy is much more expansive than the policy that was subject to the previous ruling. Vouchers give parochial schools large amounts of taxpayer money for the complete education of their students. The policy in the 2003 Embry ruling involved much more limited tax-supported instruction.

But the court’s underlying philosophy was largely the same. The 2003 ruling stated the Indiana Constitution allows “the State to contract with religious institutions for goods or services, notwithstanding possible incidental benefit to the institutions, and to prohibit the use of public funds only when directly used for such institutions’ activities of a religious nature.”

Notably, though all five justices in 2003 agreed with the result, only one joined Dickson in signing the ruling. Two wrote separate opinions and one expressed agreement with the result but did not sign on to the decision. Last week, Dickson made clear that the new voucher ruling was at least partially intended to expand on the 2003 Embry decision.

“We now recognize … that our language and holding in Embry was less than plain, and the division of our votes and separate opinions somewhat inconclusive,” Dickson wrote in last week’s decision. “We thus take this opportunity to revisit and resolve the issue.”

This time, all five justices signed the ruling.

Ritz on both sides

Ironically, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz was both a plaintiff and defendant in the voucher lawsuit.

She was among the individuals who sued in an attempt to block the voucher ruling. Before she assumed office on Jan. 1, she withdrew as a plaintiff. But because her predecessor had been named as a defendant on account of his title, Ritz was added as a defendant.

Brown kills bill

Allen County Commissioner Therese Brown’s wavering position led to the demise of a bill before the state legislature that would open the door to replacing the county commissioners with a single county executive. Her changing views undoubtedly disappointed local reform supporters who had believed Brown would be a voice for progress.

The proposal can be traced to the Kernan-Shepard report for reforming local government – which was issued in December 2007 and is starting to accumulate dust on the shelf where lawmakers apparently placed it.

Tracy Warner, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 1981. He can be reached at 461-8113 or by email, twarner@jg.net.

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