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Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris
Argued February 20, 2002
Decided June 27, 2002
Full case name Susan Tave Zelman, Superintendent of Public Instruction of Ohio, et al., Petitioners v. Doris Simmons-Harris, et al.'
Citations 536 U.S. 639 (more)
122 S. Ct. 2460; 153 L. Ed. 2d 604; 2002 U.S. LEXIS 4885; 70 U.S.L.W. 4683; 2002 Cal. Daily Op. Service 5788; 2002 Daily Journal DAR 7295; 15 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 490
Prior history On writs of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Simmons-Harris v. Zelman, 234 F.3d 945, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 31367, 2000 FED App. 411P (6th Cir. Ohio 2000)
The Court ruled that the Ohio program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it passed a five-part test developed by the Court.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Rehnquist, joined by O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas
Concurrence O'Connor
Concurrence Thomas
Dissent Stevens
Dissent Souter, joined by Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer
Dissent Breyer, joined by Stevens, Souter
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), was a case decided by the United States Supreme Court that tested the allowance of school vouchers in relation to the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

A divided Court upheld an Ohio school voucher plan.


  • Facts 1
  • Result 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


The public schools in many of the poorer parts of Cleveland were deemed failures, and the legislature enacted the Pilot Project Scholarship Program in an effort to address the problem.[1] The program provided tuition vouchers for up to $2,250 a year to some parents of students in the Cleveland City School District to attend participating public or private schools in the city and neighboring suburbs; it also allocated tutorial aid for students who remained in public school.

The vouchers were distributed to parents according to financial need, and the parents chose where to enroll their children. Because the number of students applying to the program greatly exceeded the number of vouchers available, recipients were chosen by lottery from among the eligible families. In the 1999–2000 school year, 82 percent of the participating private schools had a religious affiliation; none of the adjacent suburban public schools joined the program; and 96 percent of the students receiving vouchers were enrolled in religiously affiliated schools.


The Supreme Court ruled that the Ohio program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, because it passed a five-part test developed by the Court in this case, titled the Private Choice Test. The decision was 5-4, with moderate justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor and conservative justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas in the majority.

Under the Private Choice Test developed by the court, for a voucher program to be constitutional it must meet all of the following criteria:

  • the program must have a valid secular purpose
  • aid must go to parents and not to the schools
  • a broad class of beneficiaries must be covered
  • the program must be neutral with respect to religion
  • there must be adequate nonreligious options

The court ruled that the Ohio program met the five-part test in that 1) the valid secular purpose of the program was "providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system", 2) the vouchers were given to the parents, 3) the "broad class" was all students enrolled in currently failing programs, 4) parents who received vouchers were not required to enroll in a religious-based school, and 5) there were other public schools in adjoining districts, as well as non-sectarian private schools in the Cleveland area, available that would accept vouchers.

Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, stated that "The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual aid recipients not the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits." They found that, in theory, there is no need for parents to use religious schools, and so long as the law does not especially encourage the use of vouchers for religious schools, the fact that most parents do choose parochial schools is irrelevant. Indeed, the fact that in this case, the funding was given to the parents to disburse as they chose, whereas in Lemon v. Kurtzman the funding at question was given directly to the schools, this was a key part of the Private Choice test. The majority held, therefore, that the intent of the law was the important thing.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Thomas emphasized that voucher programs like the one in this case were essential because "failing urban public schools disproportionately affect minority children most in need of educational opportunity." He stated that vouchers and other forms of publicly funded private school choice are necessary to give families an opportunity to enroll their children in more effective private schools. Otherwise, "the core purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment" would be frustrated.

The dissenting opinions, on the other hand, disagreed with Chief Justice Rehnquist: Justice Stevens wrote "... the voluntary character of the private choice to prefer a parochial education over an education in the public school system seems to me quite irrelevant to the question whether the government's choice to pay for religious indoctrination is constitutionally permissible." Justice Souter's opinion questioned how the Court could keep Everson v. Board of Education on as precedent and decide this case in the way they did, feeling it was contradictory. He also found that religious instruction and secular education could not be separated and this itself violated the Establishment Clause.

Most state constitutions have so-called Blaine Amendments which specifically forbid state funding of religious and/or sectarian education. As a question of state rather than federal law, Ohio's Blaine Amendment was not considered by the Federal courts in Zelman. Other states, such as Florida, have struck down similar voucher systems as violative of the Blaine Amendment.

See also


  1. ^ Zelman, 536 U.S. at 644-45.

External links

Works related to Zelman v. Simmons-Harris at Wikisource

  • ^ Text of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia 
  • Sixth Circuit Decision
  • Summary of case from OYEZ
  • Summary of case from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy
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