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Gov. Hassan asks state Supreme Court to uphold ruling that education tax credits to religious schools are unconstitutional

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 13. 2014 4:39PM

Gov. Maggie Hassan urged the New Hampshire Supreme Court on Monday to uphold a lower court ruling that it is unconstitutional to use education voucher tax credits to fund scholarships to religious, non-public schools.

The state Constitution explicitly bars public funds from being used to fund these scholarships, according to the amicus brief submitted to the state's high court on the governor's behalf.

Also, public financial support of religious schools not only would violate the constitutional rights of New Hampshire taxpayers who don't want their tax dollars used to subsidize these schools, but would require more public regulation of the affairs of religious schools, the brief said.

"Diverting millions in already limited education funds from public to religious schools violates this important constitutional protection while making it more difficult for the state to meet its obligation to provide an adequate public education to all of New Hampshire's young people," Hassan wrote in a statement.

Hassan supports plaintiffs in the case, Bill Duncan v. State of New Hampshire. The Supreme Court has yet to schedule the case for oral argument.

New Hampshire Republican State Committee Chairman Jennifer Horn said the education tax credit program, passed by the Republican-led Legislature in 2012, helps poor students attend schools they otherwise could not afford. She called Hassan's actions an "elitist and callous disregard for the most vulnerable students in our community.?

"Education choice is about parents being able to find the best possible educational opportunities for their children, regardless of family income. We must put an end to the era of allowing zip code to determine educational outcome," Horn wrote in a statement.

The case stems from an appeal of Strafford County Superior Court Judge John M. Lewis' June 17 ruling that the education tax credit program is unconstitutional because it diverts tax payments to religious schools.

The program allows businesses to receive credits against their business taxes equal to 85 percent of amounts they donate to state-designated "scholarship organizations."

The organizations then may award scholarships of up to $2,500 to low-income primary and secondary school students to attend either non-public schools, public schools outside their home district or to defray costs of home schooling.

Attorneys for the state defended the program, claiming the money cannot be considered public funds because it never comes to the government.

But Hassan, in her brief, said state case law repeatedly treated tax credits as spending public tax dollars.

And she claims diverting public money to religious schools through education voucher tax credits could undermine the finances of local communities and the state's ability to meet its responsibility to provide every child with an adequate public education.

Hassan's amicus brief was signed by Lucy C. Hodder, the governor's legal counsel, and Hopkinton attorney John M. Greabe, who worked pro-bono on the brief.

Hassan filed the brief because, as governor, she is responsible for protecting the "many rights and immunities enshrined in the New Hampshire Constitution, and she believes that the education voucher tax credit program violates the Constitution," her spokesman said in a statement.

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