DENVER (AP) Groups challenging a Colorado school district’s new voucher program are asking the court to block the plan while their lawsuits go forward.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a preliminary injunction this week to halt the program by the Douglas County School District. The group Taxpayers for Public Education has filed a separate request for an injunction.

The lawsuits filed Tuesday contend the program violates the Colorado Constitution by diverting public funds to private schools. They also argue the vouchers would amount to government sponsorship of religion because taxpayer dollars would go to religious schools.

The school district has approved 19 private schools to use the $4,575 vouchers, including 14 religious schools.

“Our basic argument is that the Colorado Constitution does not allow the state government to give local government millions of dollars of taxpayer money that’s supposed to provide a free, public education and divert it to private, religious schools,” Gregory M. Lipper, an attorney with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Wednesday.

The groups also say the district’s decision to set up a charter school to administer the funding for the vouchers is an end-run around the state Constitution. Charter schools are publicly funded and operate under agreements with the local school district.

“They say the charter school is going to administer the voucher program,” Lipper said, “but it’s a shell, it only exists on paper.”

The school district in Douglas County, south of the Denver area and one of the fastest-growing areas in Colorado, plans to start the program in the fall. The district held lotteries for the 500 slots.

District officials say the program, approved in March, is similar to others that have withstood legal challenges.

“In our case, it’s patterned after four specific programs affirmed by the Colorado and U.S. supreme courts,” district spokesman Randy Barber said.

District officials also reject the argument that the vouchers violate the principle of separation of church and state.

“They’re saying that we’re giving money to religious schools,” Barber said. “We’re giving the money to parents and the parents make the decision.”

The Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which advocates school choice, has filed to intervene in the lawsuits on behalf of the school district.

Barber said the district will file a motion asking to move the cases from Denver District Court to Douglas County.

by Judith Kohler, AP Writer (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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