States map 2015 for blog Written by Don Byrd

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty joined a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the Nevada Supreme Court last week, asking the court to reject a new statewide school voucher program as a violation of long-standing religious liberty protections in the Nevada Constitution. 

Like many states, Nevada law draws more specific church-state restrictions on the use of government funds than the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, Article XI, Section 10 of the Nevada Constitution states that “[n]o public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.” The BJC’s brief argues, among other things, that in light of that provision, a lower court was wrong to uphold the state’s voucher program, which allows the use taxpayer funds toward tuition at private schools, including religious schools.

In particular, the BJC claims the court erred in holding that the Nevada Constitution provides no greater church-state protection than the U.S. Constitution (see my earlier post about that element of the previous ruling).

Here is an excerpt from the BJC’s brief arguing this important distinction between Nevada and federal law:

It was improper for the district court to disregard the expansive language of Nevada’s Constitution, the pronouncements of this Court, and the historical opinions of Nevada’s Attorney General, instead relying on federal law and law from other states. These laws do not determine the religious liberty protections of the Nevada Constitution. The language of Nevada’s Constitution, and its subsequent interpretation in Nevada, do that. In particular, the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, does not define the limits of religious liberty protection in Nevada. Both the delegates who voted to propose the No-Aid Clause and the citizenry that ratified it understood and intended that the Clause would protect the public schools and promote religious liberty by denying the legislature any power to divert public money to religious schools. Nevada’s protections extend beyond those of the Establishment Clause and should have been interpreted in that manner by the district court.

The brief also makes the essential case that government funding of religious schools does no favors to religion:

It is not now, nor has it ever been, anti-religious to say that decisions about the religious education and spiritual life of children should be left to their families and houses of worship, without either governmental support or intrusion. Quite the contrary; maintaining that principle is critical to ensuring religious liberty for all. As Roger Williams, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the U.S. Supreme Court all recognized, “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.”

The BJC issued a press release about the brief. You can read the entire brief, which was also joined by the Hindu American Foundation, here.

Previously, the BJC argued that a somewhat similar provision in Colorado’s Constitution invalidated a school voucher program in that state. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled the program unconstitutional last June.