The US Supreme Court's announcement that it will examine the constitutionality of Cleveland's school-voucher program sets the stage for a potential landmark church-state ruling by next summer that could change the face of American education.
It could also substantially alter the relationship between government and organized religion in the US, paving the way for a wide range of faith-based initiatives favored by the Bush administration.
"This is a big deal," says Derek Davis of the Institute for Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Opponents of vouchers see the case as a major threat to religious liberty through increased government involvement in matters of faith. Supporters of vouchers see the case as an opportunity to end what they view as longstanding government hostility to all things religious.
At issue in the case is whether the Cleveland program impermissibly entangles religion and government by providing state aid, via tuition vouchers paid by parents, to religious schools.
A green light from the Supreme Court would likely spark similar school-voucher projects across the country. If the court invalidates the Cleveland program, it may shift the focus of the education debate back to trying to improve existing public schools.
Yesterday's announcement comes as the nation's highest court prepares to begin a new term next Monday. Already on the docket are potentially important cases involving affirmative action, Internet pornography, and the death penalty.
But the inclusion of the school-voucher case immediately raises the profile of the court in a year that may also be dominated by wrangling over civil-liberties concerns and other legal issues related to President Bush's war on terrorism.
The Cleveland voucher case involves a program that provides low-income parents with vouchers worth up to $2,500 to transfer their children from public to private schools. The vouchers may be signed over to any one of 56 participating private schools in the Cleveland area. Most of these schools are religious, and 96 percent of the 3,700 children in the program are now attending parochial schools.
A US appeals court panel ruled 2 to 1 last December that the Cleveland program violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which mandates the separation of church and state. The court struck down the program in part, the judges said, because the Cleveland school-choice program offered no real choice for parents other than to send their children to a religious school.
In agreeing to decide the case, the US Supreme Court has once again thrust itself into the heart of one of the most contentious issues facing the country. Analysts say the court appears to be firmly divided, with four justices on each side of the issue. The swing vote in the case will likely belong to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
A series of church-state rulings over the past decade have chipped away at the wall separating church and state, but it is unclear how far Justice O'Connor is willing to go in further lowering that wall.
Proponents of the voucher program say the constitutional issue is avoided because the government aid is given to parents, who then decide on their own whether to spend it on tuition at a private nonreligious school or a parochial school.
Critics of vouchers say the end result is what counts: government aid flowing to religious groups. They say such programs draw scarce funding from the struggling public schools that need it most.
Some analysts say the very strength and vibrancy of religious life depends on the separation of church and state. "Most people think the separation doctrine is a humanistic, atheistic doctrine. It is not," says Mr. Davis. "A strong separation of church and state is good for religion and good for the nation. It forces religion to be genuine and authentic, not propped up by government and government money."
Others disagree. Says Greg Baylor, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom in Annandale, Va.: "The Supreme Court has elevated church-state separation over the ability of parents to make choices involving religion such as putting their kids in religious schools."