Thursday, August 28, 2014
My Account  | Login
Nashua;74.0;http://forecast.weather.gov/images/wtf/small/sct.png;2014-08-28 11:06:03
Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Judge rules portion of ed tax credit program unconstitutional

A New Hampshire judge ruled Monday that the state’s education tax credit program could not provide scholarships to students to attend religious schools, calling that portion of the program unconstitutional.

“New Hampshire students, and their parents, certainly have a right to choose a religious education,” wrote Strafford County Superior Court Judge John Lewis in his decision. “However, the government is under no obligation to fund ‘religious’ education.” ...

Sign up to continue

Print subscriber?    Sign up for Full Access!

Please sign up for as low as 36 cents per day to continue viewing our website.

Digital subscribers receive

  • Unlimited access to all stories from nashuatelegraph.com on your computer, tablet or smart phone.
  • Access nashuatelegraph.com, view our digital edition or use our Full Access apps.
  • Get more information at nashuatelegraph.com/fullaccess
Sign up or Login

A New Hampshire judge ruled Monday that the state’s education tax credit program could not provide scholarships to students to attend religious schools, calling that portion of the program unconstitutional.

“New Hampshire students, and their parents, certainly have a right to choose a religious education,” wrote Strafford County Superior Court Judge John Lewis in his decision. “However, the government is under no obligation to fund ‘religious’ education.”

Kate Baker, the executive director of the state Network for Educational Opportunities, the organization managing donations for the private school scholarships, said she was disappointed, but not surprised, by the ruling.

“My goal is to increase the options available to parents, and the scholarships are given to parents to enable them to make choices,” Baker said Monday. “I think they should be able to make whatever choice is right for their children.”

The state legislature adopted the tax credit over the veto of then-Democratic Gov. John Lynch last year. The law went into effect in January, allowing up to $3.5 million of tax credits in the first year and $5.1 million in the second.

The credits are provided to businesses that donate to the NEO scholarships, with money going to low-income students to attend private schools, public schools outside their district, or home-school programs.

Baker said NEO already has raised about $250,000 in donations for scholarships and has received about 1,000 applications for the money from local families.

A bill to repeal the tax credits, labeled a voucher program by its critics, was killed in the legislature this spring.

The superior court case was filed in January by three civil liberties groups, claiming the tax credit violates the state constitution by giving public money to religious schools.

On Monday, lead counsel in the case Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the program was “a blatant attempt to circumvent the state’s constitution’s clear prohibitions against diversion of tax funds to religious schools.”

Critics and supporters of the program spoke out about the court decision Monday.

Barbara Keshen, staff attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said, “We believe that everyone has the right to practice according to his or her own religious beliefs, but taxpayers should not bear the expense of educating school children about religious beliefs that they don’t share.”

“This is a victory for local schools, public education in New Hampshire, as well as Granite State students and their parents,” New Hampshire Democratic Party communications director Harrell Kirstein said in a statement.

Supporters of the tax credit program said the scholarships should be permitted for use at religious schools, saying the scholarships are funded by donations from private companies.

“I am appalled by this decision,” said Ashley Pratte, executive director of Cornerstone Action. “The Education Tax Credit was carefully established to work within New Hampshire law … It is not derived from taxpayer funds and is, in fact, a charitable program working to the benefit of our most vulnerable families in the Granite State.”

But Monday’s decision, while ruling scholarships to religious schools unconstitutional, does not dismantle the tax credit program entirely, allowing scholarships to be used at nonreligious private schools, out-of-district public schools and home-school programs.

In New Hampshire, however, where the majority of nonpublic schools are religious-based, it could severely limit students’ choices, said Attorney Dick Komer, of the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, who represented NEO in the court proceedings.

Komer said he believes Monday’s ruling equates to religious discrimination, a notion that Lewis argued against in his ruling.

“All private schools are attended by private families,” Komer said. “They get to exercise their religious liberty without interference by the state.”

Komer said the decision will be repealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, said Monday that no education tax credit has ever been struck down by a Supreme Court in any state.

In the meantime, Baker said she’ll continue to work to raise money and awareness for the tax credit scholarships.

“I expect that justice will prevail and that families will be able to use the scholarships as they are intended, to increase choice in New Hampshire,” she said. “All of this work has been to eliminate obstacles for families … I do see this ruling as attempting to limit people in making choices.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).