08/27/2015 17:14 EDT | Updated 08/27/2016 01:12 EDT

ACLU sues to block Nevada's new education funding program, says public money going to religion

CARSON CITY, Nev. — A Nevada education funding program that's considered the nation's broadest school choice initiative has attracted its first legal challenge, with three civil liberties groups saying it violates the state constitution by releasing public funds to religious schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union, its Nevada affiliate and Americans United for Separation of Church and State said they filed a lawsuit Thursday in Nevada District Court in Clark County. They're asking the courts to block implementation of the state's sweeping new Education Savings Account program, which allows parents to claim the majority of their child's per-pupil state education funds and use it toward private schooling or other qualifying education expenses.

The groups also want the courts to strike down the law that authorized the program.

"Parents have a right to send their children to religious schools, but they are not entitled to do so at taxpayers' expense," ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Tod Story said in a statement. "The voucher program violates the Nevada Constitution's robust protections against the use of public funds for religious education."

The Nevada State Treasurer's Office is administering the program and declined to comment, referring questions to the attorney general's office. The attorney general's office said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The civil liberties groups say the program will use taxpayer dollars — more than $5,000 per child each year — for religious indoctrination at private schools that can discriminate in admissions and employment. In a conference call with reporters, they listed practices of Nevada schools that would receive the funds, including daily Bible study and daily Islamic prayer.

"The program would be a huge loss for religious liberty if implemented," ACLU attorney Heather L. Weaver said in a statement.

The groups base their opposition in the Blaine Amendment, a portion of the Nevada Constitution added in 1887 that prohibits public funding for sectarian purposes. Thirty-seven states have such provisions.

Proponents of the Education Savings Accounts say the program gets around that by letting the parent decide where the money goes.

"The constitution constrains government action," said attorney Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based libertarian group that defends school choice measures and wants to work on the Nevada case. "Here, it's not the government making the decision, it's the parent."

Nevada lawmakers voted this spring to create the program, which is considered the broadest school choice initiative in the U.S. because it is not limited by family income level or other factors. The treasurer's office said it received about 2,800 applications for the program within a matter of weeks, even though funds are not expected to be disbursed until the spring.

Republicans have touted the program as a groundbreaking effort that will increase competition and improve education in Nevada, and called ACLU's challenge "regrettable."

"Instead of empowering parents to help their children find an educational environment that meets their needs, the ACLU wants to go back to a system of hard zoning, forcing poor and minority students into chronically failing schools and furthering cycles of generational poverty," said GOP state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, who was instrumental in pushing the bill through the Legislature.

Democrats have decried the program as legally dubious and raised concerns about whether it helps wealthier families who can already afford private school at the expense of public schools serving the poor.

Democrats resisted implementation efforts as recently as last week, voting against $116,000 in IT spending that would start development of a website and the program's payment processing system. Lawmakers questioned why the proposed IT vendor had a revoked Nevada business license, why the office didn't use an open bidding process and whether the vendor could pull off the ambitious project.

Treasurer's office officials later said they'll go back to the drawing board, restarting the process as an open bid in hopes of avoiding technical problems that have plagued websites for other major state programs, such as the Nevada health insurance exchange.

Michelle Rindels, The Associated Press