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Private Education Tax Credits Upheld by U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court put new limits on the power of citizens to challenge government programs as unconstitutionally promoting religion, upholding an Arizona tax credit aimed at helping cover private-school tuition costs.

The justices, voting 5-4, today said opponents lacked “standing” to challenge the 14-year-old program, which gives tax credits for donations to organizations that provide private- school scholarships. The opponents faulted the program for relying on religious organizations that require their recipients to enroll in sectarian schools.

The ruling marks the second under Chief Justice John Roberts to insulate government programs from church-state challenges. The court in 2007 threw out a suit over then- President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives office.

The case split the court along familiar lines, with the court’s five Republican appointees -- Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito -- in the majority.

Since 1968, when the court issued a decision known as Flast v. Cohen, individuals have possessed the right to challenge statutes that direct government money to be spent for religious purposes. Flast marked an exception to the general rule that Americans can’t go to court to contest how their tax dollars are spent because they don’t have enough of an individual stake in the outcome.

The majority today said Flast didn’t apply. In reaching that conclusion, the majority agreed with the contentions of the Obama administration, which joined Arizona in defending the program.

A federal appeals court had let the lawsuit go forward.

The Arizona tax credit applies after taxpayers have computed how much they owe for the previous year. At that point individuals can send as much as $500 to so-called school tuition organizations, reducing their tax liability by the same amount.

The court ruled in 2002 that tax-funded school vouchers are constitutional so long as parents have a “genuine choice” not to send their children to religious schools.

The cases are Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, 09-987, and Garriott v. Winn, 09-991.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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