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Judge Upholds Indiana Voucher Law

An Indiana judge has upheld the state's ambitious new voucher law, saying it meets the standards of the state's constitution, despite objections about it directing money to religious schools.

Superior Court Judge Michael Keele found that whether students choose to use public money to attend sectarian institutions is ultimately "immaterial," because families are exercising their choice to do so.

Court decisions over state voucher programs typically turn on the language of individual state constitutions, and the extent to which they restrict the flow of public funds to religious and other non-public institutions, such as schools.

The Indiana case has drawn broad interest both from supporters and opponents of private school choice, in large part because of the large-scale nature of Indiana's program.

While many voucher programs limit eligibility to students of low-incomes, or those with special needs, Indiana's measure, which was supported by the state's GOP-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, took the unusual step of setting relatively loose restrictions on eligibility, allowing some students from middle-income families to take part. The measure was one of several voucher programs created or expanded in states last year. Backers of vouchers say they expect a lot of activity on that same front in statehouses in 2012.

A lawsuit challenging Indiana's program was filed last year by a group of parents, teachers' union members, and other state residents. They argued that it violated various pieces of Indiana's constitution, in part because it allows students to attend religious schools on the public dime.

But in his ruling, issued January 13, Judge Keele found that "the precise degree of religiosity of schools participating in the [voucher program] has no bearing on the program's constitutionality."

The Indianapolis judge examined the drafting of Indiana's state constitution and the history of education funding in the state, and found that they do not restrict the flow of public money to private schools under all circumstances.

Indiana laws are not about "restricting the government's use of general tax revenues" but rather "protecting citizens from forced tithing or other, similiar government coerced, direct, individual support for churches or ministries," Keele found.

Stay tuned for whether opponents of the law seek decide to continue to fight the case, despite losing this round.

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