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Civil Liberties Union sues state over tax credit tuition plan

Civil liberty advocates filed suit today against the Education Tax Credit system, the Republican-backed plan that issues tax credits to businesses that donate to scholarship funds used to pay tuitions for private and religious school.

The lawsuit was filed in Strafford County Superior Court and names the state of New Hampshire as the defendant. It says the system violates two provision of the New Hampshire Constitution -- one that forbids the use of tax money for religious schools, the other that no person shall be compelled to pay for the support of any religious school.

"A robust respect for the separation of church and state is vital to protecting the religious freedom of all New Hampshire citizens," said Barbara R. Keshen, staff attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. "That's why our state constitution contains several provisions intended to prevent this type of program."

The program, passed by the New Hampshire Legislature last year, took effect Jan. 1. It allows up to $3.4 million in tax credits to be claimed in the first year and $5.1 million during its second year. Keshen said she understands that some families have applied for funding.

The New Hampshire Attorney General is responsible for defending all lawsuits against the state.

Mary Ann Dempsey, head of the Attorney General Civil Bureau, said it is too early to comment on the substance of the complaint.

"Statutes are presumed to be consitiutional," she said. "Certainly, we will be defending the case and defending the statute."

Keshen said the suit was filed in Dover because two of the eight plaintiffs live in Strafford County. Plaintiffs include state Rep. Rebecca Emerson-Brown, D-Portsmouth; the Rev. Homer Goddard, a retired Unitarian-Universalist minister; the Rev. Richard Stuart, a United Church of Christ pastor; and Rabbi Joshua Segal, the rabbi emeritus at Congregation Betenu in Amherst.

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