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Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn

Description:  The American Civil Liberties Union challenged an Arizona program that promotes school choice. The program, like others across the country, allows state residents to claim a tax credit for donations to private organizations that provide scholarships to private schools.

U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
Monday, Apr 4, 2011
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a huge victory for proponents of parental choice in education Monday. The high court agreed 5–4 with the arguments of Alliance Defense Fund attorneys and dismissed an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against an Arizona program that promotes school choice. The program, like others across the country, allows state residents to claim a tax credit for donations to private organizations that provide scholarships to private schools.

The court dismissed the suit saying that the ACLU’s clients—taxpayers who don’t like the program—didn’t have any legal standing to sue over someone else’s private donations. ADF represented the only party to make this argument to the court. The decision creates a national precedent that will prevent similar legal attacks in the future.

“Parents should be able to choose what’s best for their own children. This ruling empowers parents to do just that,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “Parents should decide what schools their children attend and where their money goes. The ACLU failed in its attempt to eliminate school choice for hundreds of thousands of students nationwide and also failed to demonstrate that it had any constitutional basis for its clients to file suit in the first place.”

ADF represents the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, one of more than 50 non-profit 501(c)(3) corporations organized to distribute private donations in the form of scholarships to more than 27,000 students attending hundreds of private schools throughout the state. ADF argued that the Arizona program involves individual, private choices and funding—not government action or money—and pointed out that the program saves the state money and relieves burdens on overcrowded public schools.

“When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute to STOs, they spend their own money, not money the State has collected from respondents or from other taxpayers…,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn. “Objecting taxpayers know that their fellow citizens, not the State, decide to contribute and in fact make the contribution. These considerations prevent any injury the objectors may suffer from being fairly traceable to the government.... Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding STO tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the Arizona State Treasury.”

“The court’s reasoning is sound,” Cortman explained. “The government does not own 100 percent of every American’s paycheck. The donations are private money, not government money.”

A federal court dismissed the suit against the program in 2005, finding that it did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In February 2010, ADF asked the Supreme Court on behalf of ACSTO to reverse a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decision that reinstated the case. The high court received 18 friend-of-the-court briefs supporting ACSTO’s arguments and held oral argument in November 2010.
  • Op-ed: "Saving Arizona's tuition tax credit program" by David Cortman (The Washington Times, 3/3/2011)
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.

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ABOUT David Cortman

David A. Cortman serves as senior counsel and vice president of U.S. litigation with Alliance Defending Freedom. He has been practicing law since 1996, and currently supervises a team of over 40 attorneys and legal staff who specialize in constitutional law, focusing on religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family. Cortman has litigated hundreds of constitutional law cases including two victories at the U.S. Supreme Court. In Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, he secured a 7-2 victory that overturned Missouri’s denial of a religious school’s participation in a state funding program. Cortman also argued Reed v. Town of Gilbert, securing a 9-0 ruling that prohibits the government from discriminating against religious speech. A member of the bar in Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and the District of Columbia, he is also admitted to practice in over two dozen federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Cortman obtained his J.D. magna cum laude from Regent University School of Law.