Much Ado About Your (Arizona) Neighbor’s Taxes

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn and Garriott v. Winn and will decide the constitutionality of a program that diverts tax money into private-school scholarships.

This program allows donors a dollar-for-dollar reduction in state income taxes. The reduction is good for contributions of up to $1,000 if made to certain non-profits organizations. These non-profits collect the money and distribute them in the form of scholarships for students. The law allows organizations to limit the scholarships they disperse in any fashion including exclusively to religious schools.

Unsurprisingly, organizations linked to a certain religions give the majority of scholarships to schools tied to that religion. Upset, taxpayers sued. (Another issue in these cases I’m not mentioning is taxpayer standing for lawsuits — usually there is none — but the unique circumstances are likely to allow it here).

The taxpayer plaintiffs stated — and the April 2009 Ninth Circuit opinion agreed — “that Arizona’s tax-credit funded scholarship program lacks religious neutrality and true private choice in making scholarships available to parents.”

The other side, however, points out that individuals decide to which non-profits they donate. Then those non-profits divvy up the money. They argue the money is clean of any ‘state taint’ that would render it subject to the Establishment clause. This view is consistent with Everson v. Board of Education, a 1947 case that upheld NJ’s travel reimbursement to parents of religious schools and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris where a government voucher program was upheld despite the option for a religious school voucher. The idea in both of these cases was that because the assistance goes to the children and not the church it is neutral toward religion.

What will happen?

I predict the program will be found constitutional. As seasoned SCOTUS watchers know — for the Supreme Court office pool, always vote against the 9th Circuit’s winning side. Furthermore, the weight of the existing Supreme Court precedent is behind the Court finding for the tax program’s constitutionality. Even if the taxpayers are correct that “the Arizona program is neither based on financial or academic need … [and] instead, […] awards most of its scholarships to the children of middle-class and wealthy parents on the basis of religion,” the fact remains that it is individuals who choose where to donate and the state has no hand in who gets the funds.

That’s what I think will happen and I expect to be right just about exactly half the time. What do you think?

Would you be upset to see your neighbor’s tax money going towards tuition at a religious school if you knew you could donate your own tax money to a non-profit with a history of creating scholarships for secular schools?

  • http://lonelocust.com Gridman

    One additional aspect about this whole process. Donors can request that their contribution be given towards the tuition of specific children.

    While parents are forbidden to do this for their own children, there are issues with parents swapping recommendations with other parents as a means to get a credit for their own child’s tuition. The whole program is a bit dubious.

    Disclosure: While we’ve never swapped (which is against statute) we have taken advantage of having friends donate towards our children’s tuition using this program. Fortunately secular private schools are eligible, too.

  • Potco

    Well, I think this will be ok based on precedent, but I think it is wrong to divert tax money from public schools to private schools, secular or religious. If a parent wants to place their child in a private school they should, but they should still pay taxes to the public school system.

  • Frank

    The appropriate counter for religious schools isn’t secular schools, it’s atheistic schools. But since that would be a bad idea, could atheists take advantage of the law to create an organization to provide scholarships only to children of atheist parents? If so, then atheists should do that, and see how much the religious nuts who created this law like what we can do with it.

  • Russell

    I think a better, much larger, argument could be made against allowing religious groups to be classified as tax-exempt. As long as they keep doing that, we will continue to see money flowing away from tax revenue to support religion.

  • http://paulforpm.blogspot.com/ keddaw

    The state should rightly be allowed to allow citizens to give to the charities they choose, thus limiting the state’s requirement to fund certain projects that they shouldn’t really be involved in.

    The problem in the US is that so many tax exempt charities are religious. If there were more secular, or even simply non-Christian charities then it would be fine.

    The basic question is: is it better for people to be able to select where their charity dollars go, or should the government take the money off them and decide for them.

    Basically, who should decide what charities you give to, you? Or the state? Sorry, but no matter how anti-religious I am , it is not the state’s place to say where I can and can’t donate to charity.

  • Anonymous

    Why should parents who send their children to private schools have to pay taxes to the public schools? If they aren’t using them then they shouldn’t have to pay for them. In any case I don’t have a problem with this. The only misfortune is the vast numbers of religious-geared charities dominate the number of secular/atheist charities available.

  • Richard Wade

    The entire community benefits when the general population is well educated. Education could be seen as an infrastructure that helps the community function as a whole, like the roads and sewer systems. If the roads and sewers were subject to pick-and-choose funding where some parts of the street outside or the sewer underground were privately owned, then the community would immediately be paralyzed and constipated.

    I think the people who can afford to send their kids to private schools should still pay taxes supporting public schools. They benefit from being in a community where all the young people are educated. Any measure, even one that centers around charities, that reduces the overall funding for public schools is going to be a detriment to the community as a whole.

  • Trace

    We homeschool and our property taxes support our public school system. I don’t have a problem with that. Of course the school gets less funding from the gov. since my son is not registered as a student.

    Also, let’s not forget charter schools when talking private vs public schools and/or vouchers (sp.). In my experience many CS can be an excuse to have public funds support “private” goals and to “exclude” some groups from attending them under “educational” disguises.

  • stogoe

    The need for charity is a warning sign that our government has failed in its duties to promote the general welfare.

  • Darrin Chandler

    I’m an Arizonan who has used this to donate to a non-religious organization. The schools used the money to cover the costs of people without the means to cover tuition. The choice to contribute, and to which organization, is completely up to the individual. Therefore I don’t see this as a violation of the 1st Amendment.

  • Jerad

    “Why should parents who send their children to private schools have to pay taxes to the public schools? If they aren’t using them then they shouldn’t have to pay for them.”

    I have no children, does that mean I should get more money back? I’m not using the any of the schools in my district.


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