The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of an Arizona school voucher program that critics say improperly directs taxpayer funds to religious schools.
Monday's 5-4 ruling expands long-standing court precedents that citizens don't have standing to legally challenge taxes they don't like simply because they're taxpayers.
The minority on the court maintained that since the case involved claims of a violation of religious freedoms, that the Arizona plaintiffs didn't need to demonstrate a specific personal injury.
The decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by the court's more conservative members, preserves Arizona's school voucher program that is funded by tax credits offered to state taxpayers. Most of the students who use the voucher money attend religious schools.
Opponents of the Arizona system filed a lawsuit claiming the $500 tax credit, available to all individual taxpayers, designed to help pay for private education violates the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing any religion in the United States. The high court in 1968 said taxpayers didn't need to show that they had been personally harmed when lodging an Establishment Clause claim.
Attorneys defending the system had argued that since the law only allows taxpayers to direct their own tax dollars to religious schools, the plaintiffs lacked the standing to sue because their tax payments were not being used.
On Monday, the court ruled that taxpayers couldn't sue based on a general First Amendment complaint but rather need to show specific individual harm.
"The (Arizona) tax credit is not tantamount to a religious tax or to a tithe and does not visit the injury identified in (1968)," Kennedy wrote.
The distinction between a tax credit and an actual tax or appropriation from general income tax revenues was a key factor in the case, with Kennedy writing that "awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control over their own funds in accordance with their own consciences."
Justice Elena Kagan, writing her first dissent, said the majority's ruling was arbitrary and threatens to eliminate all occasions when a taxpayer can object to governmental support of religion.
"The novel distinction in standing law between appropriations and tax expenditures has as little basis in principle as it has in our precedent," Kagan wrote. She then added that Monday's ruling is an end-run around the high court's 1968 precedent.
Interestingly, both Kennedy and Kagan each claim fidelity to Founding Father James Madison in their writings.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate opinion, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas agreeing with the outcome of the case but saying that the 1968 ruling cited by Kagan and the other dissenting justices was not just inapplicable, but wrong itself.
"I would repudiate that misguided (1968) decision and enforce the Constitution," Scalia wrote.
The ruling drew immediate praise from Arizona groups defending the voucher system.
"Parents should be able to choose what's best for their own children. This ruling empowers parents to do just that," Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel David Cortman said in a statement. "The ACLU failed in its attempt to eliminate school choice for hundreds of thousands of students nationwide and also failed to demonstrate that it had any constitutional basis for its clients to file suit in the first place."
But Steven Shapiro, legal director of the ACLU, decried the decision.
"Today's decision ignores precedent, defies logic and undermines the role of the courts in preserving the core constitutional principle that government may not subsidize religion," he said.