Written by Don Byrd

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner says he will sign an education funding measure passed by the state’s legislature yesterday that includes $75 million in tax credits for private school tuition, including religious schools. Through that provision of the program, which is authorized for five years, Illinois taxpayers will be essentially subsidizing religious education in a manner somewhat akin to school vouchers.

Last week, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn urged the legislature not to include such a “bad idea” in the final bill, arguing that it undermines the spirit of state religious liberty law:

Our state has… constitutional barriers against using public money for sectarian purposes, and, legalistic shell games aside, tax credit scholarship funds are simply backdoor voucher programs — ways to funnel tax dollars from public coffers to religious schools in the name of “choice.”

Despite important state law provisions like Illinois’ that bar the use of public money for religious education, as Zorn indicates, many courts have held that such tax credit scholarship initiatives do not violate those church-state protections. 

Most recently, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in June of this year that a similar program does not implicate public funds “because none of the money in the Program ever becomes the property of the State of Georgia.” Instead, the funds are merely individual’s money that are not required to be paid into the state in the form of taxes.

In Montana, also in June, a court ruled the state could not exclude religious schools from its tax credit scholarship program out of church-state concerns. 

As a result of rulings like these, school voucher advocates in many states are turning to tax credit programs as a means of facilitating private school tuition without running afoul of laws which sensibly prohibit the use of public funds for religious education.

The Chicago Tribune reports that a teacher’s union opposed to the just-passed measure is considering its legal options, which may include challenging the program’s constitutionality. Stay tuned.