North Carolina's Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision Thursday that a state voucher program providing taxpayer money for eligible students to attend private and religious schools is constitutional.
The contentious decision overturned a lower court's ruling that found the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional, according to the Associated Press.
In the court's majority opinion, Chief Justice Mark Martin wrote that it is not the court's responsibility to "assess the wisdom of the legislation".
"Our review is limited to a determination of whether plaintiffs have demonstrated that the program legislation plainly and clearly violates our constitution," the opinion reads. "Plaintiffs have made no such showing in this case.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program has allowed eligible students from low income families to attend nonpublic schools through N.C. government issued scholarships. Schools that fall under this category include "Private Church Schools" and "Schools of Religious Charter".
More than $4.6 million in scholarships were awarded to 1,216 students to attend 224 private schools, where nearly 75 percent of the schools identified a religious creed.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Robin Hudson concluded that the program is in violation of the North Carolina Constitution for two reasons.
"…the Opportunity Scholarship Program provides for the spending of taxpayer money on private schools without incorporating any standards for determining whether students receive a sound basic--or indeed, any--education," her opinion read.
"…it [the program] provides no framework at all for evaluating any of the participating schools' contribution to public purposes; such a huge omission is a constitutional black hole into which the entire program should disappear."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) described the court's ruling as "a stunning blow to public education and the separation of state and church".
"Like other voucher and neovoucher schemes, North Carolina's program will siphon tax dollars from public schools that will instead be spent on schools that inculcate religion, with no apparent end in sight," a statement from the FFRF reads.
Supporters say the scholarship program provides opportunities for students who are falling behind academically to improve their situation by attending private schools.
"We join the thousands of families across the state who are celebrating today because the court has given them the legal right to exercise educational choice through the Opportunity Scholarship program," said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, to WRAL. "We are thrilled for the many low-income students currently on the program and the many more who need this option in the future."
Close to 20 states provide students with vouchers and/or tax credits to attend private and religious schools, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislators.
Photo Credit: North Carolina Court System