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ACLU files appeal to Nevada school choice law

The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday filed an appeal with the Nevada Supreme Court to overturn a Las Vegas judge’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the state’s controversial education savings accounts.

Joined by the ACLU of Nevada and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the civil rights advocacy group filed its notice of appeal on the last day available to challenge Clark County District Court Judge Eric Johnson’s ruling last month.

He ruled that Senate Bill 302, widely considered the most sweeping school choice law in the country, does not violate a constitutional ban against the use of taxpayer money for religious purposes.

“For more than 130 years, the Nevada Supreme Court has recognized that the Nevada Constitution strictly prohibits state-sponsored support of religious educational institutions,” Amy Rose, the ACLU of Nevada’s legal director, said in a statement.

“With this appeal we hope to cease private religious schools’ ability to use taxpayer dollars to indoctrinate and discriminate against students on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and other grounds,” the statement reads.

The ACLU filed its lawsuit, Duncan v. Nevada, in August to halt implementation of the bill.

That legislation offers parents about $5,100 in per-pupil state funds to spend on private school tuition, home-school expenses and other educational services if they pull their children out of public school.

According to the ACLU, 27 of the 48 private schools that as of January have applied to participate in the program have a religious affiliation.

Regardless, Johnson ruled in May that the bill remains “neutral with respect to religion” because parents — not state administrators — decide whether they will use the program to pay for tuition at private and religiously affiliated schools.

He also ruled a provision in the Nevada Constitution that charges state lawmakers with encouraging education “by all suitable means” allows the SB302 program in addition to the public school system.

Contrary to that decision, Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson in January issued an injunction against SB302 in a separate lawsuit.

Attorney General Adam Laxalt appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which earlier this week rescheduled oral argument in that case to July 29.

The attorney general’s office requested the justices reschedule arguments from July 8 because its outside attorney, former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, will be out of the country through July 11.

It’s unclear whether the ACLU appeal, if merged with the Carson City case, would further delay consideration of SB302 before the state’s highest court.

However, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said in a statement Friday that the later date could allow the Supreme Court to hear both cases at once.

“Our office requested that oral argument be scheduled for July 29th in large part in anticipation of this appeal by the ACLU,” the statement reads. “We are hopeful that the parties will be able to argue both cases on July 29th.”

Contact Neal Morton at nmorton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @nealtmorton.

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