Gearing up for a constitutional slug match over the fate of private school vouchers in Colorado, lawyers for Douglas County parents and taxpayers made their first pitch to the Colorado Supreme Court on the 2011 suburban scholarship program.

The voucher plan, which is on hold pending litigation, would allow Douglas County students to use public tax dollars to enroll in private — and often religious — schools would siphon away much-needed revenue from public schools and subsidize religious institutions. In effect, the program is unconstitutional, lawyers argued in a brief filed late Thursday with the Colorado Supreme Court.

The 80-page document, filed on behalf of two groups of plaintiffs, argues why the district-created voucher program, known as the Choice Scholarship Program, should not be permitted to launch.

The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case earlier this year after a three-member appellate court overturned a lower courts ruling that deemed the program unconstitutional.

The appellate court ruled the plaintiffs, including parents, clergy, and tax payers, did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit. That decision will be one of six points the Supreme Court will consider in its ruling.

Other questions the Supreme Court will look to answer include whether the program violates Colorado’s Public School Finance Act of 1994 and four different sections of the Colorado Constitution.

“The majority court of appeals opinion that upheld the Program, if allowed to stand, would eviscerate core provisions of the religion and education clauses of the Colorado Constitution, restrict citizens’ ability to enforce the Public School Finance Act, and give school districts around the state carte blanche to implement similar programs, with potentially devastating consequences for the State’s constitutionally mandated public-school system,” the brief says.

The plaintiffs’ brief is one of a few initial steps in what is expected to be a rather long and uncertain process. The Douglas County School District has until Aug. 4 to file its response. A date for oral arguments has not been set. Those arguments may not be heard until next year, according to a spokesman for the the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The voucher program, which was unanimously passed by the Dougco school board in 2011, would have allowed up to 500 Douglas County students to use 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding – or $4,575 at the time – to attend a participating private school approved by the district.

Students would have been able to use those funds to attend private religious schools.

Thirty-four private schools applied to participate in the voucher program. Dougco approved 23 of those schools.

Of the 23 schools, 14 were located outside Douglas County, and 16 taught religious doctrine.

The voucher program was modeled after other programs across the nation that have prevailed in court. It gave students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the [participating private school],” according to previous court documents filed by the district.

However, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue the waivers weren’t enough to meet constitutional muster.

The Douglas County school board remains confident in its case, a spokeswoman for the district said earlier this week referring to a previously issued statement from board member Craig Richardson.

“The District welcomes the opportunity for the state’s highest court to review a case that presents such important issues for our state and our country,” Richardson said in March. “DCSD is committed to expanding choice for parents and one of the ways is our innovative Choice Scholarship Program. We believe the Court of Appeals will be affirmed and that the parents and children of our District will, someday soon, be afforded more educational choice.”

From the brief

One of the main objections to the voucher program was the inclusion of religious-run institutions. Critics saw this as a violation as of the Colorado’s Constitution as using public dollars for religious activities. While there was a waiver policy for students who might not participate in a particular religion, a lower court agreed the waiver was limited at bets. The brief argues:

The Program purports to afford students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the Private School Partner,” but the waiver only applies to saying prayers aloud; students can still be compelled to attend religious services. Nor may students opt out of full participation in other religious exercises — such as prayer recitations and scriptural readings — that many of the schools mandate throughout the day. Moreover, most of the schools require students to receive instruction in religious doctrine. Even the District acknowledged that this was “[n]ot much of an opt out.”

During the initial trial, testimony suggested one participating religious school only signed up for the program to beef up its own reserves. Here’s why:

There are no restrictions on how participating schools may spend the public funds they receive through the Program. Schools are free to use the funds for religious instruction, worship services, religious literature, clergy salaries, and construction or maintenance of facilities used for worship and prayer.

One of the more nuanced parts of the Dougco voucher case revolves around a charter school established by the district that students in the program were to enroll in. The charter school had no teachers, curriculum, or walls. Its primary function was to cut voucher checks to parents.

In sum, the Voucher Program rests on the transparent fiction that the Charter School is a “qualified charter school” entitled to claim and spend public funds under the Act. The Court should not sanction such a fiction.

If the Douglas County wants to expand school choice, as it has purported to do, there is a constitutional solution, the brief says:

If the citizens of Colorado want to rewrite the State Constitution to allow public funding of religious schools, they can try to do so at the ballot box. Until then, the language and intent of the Colorado Constitution’s framers must be followed.

The plaintiffs’ brief