WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 27, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school voucher programs are constitutional if they provide parents a choice among a range of religious and secular schools.

The U.S. bishops' conference quickly hailed today's historic 5-4 ruling. "The decision is good news for the parents of school children in Cleveland, good news to parents everywhere struggling to find educational alternatives and good news for realism in constitutional interpretation," said Mark E. Chopko, general counsel of the U.S. bishops' conference, in a statement reported by the Associated Press.

"The court confirms the principle we believed long evident in its precedents -- that voucher and scholarship programs can be constitutional under the First Amendment if they are carefully designed," Chopko said.

The court ruling clears a constitutional cloud from vouchers. Vouchers use taxpayer money to help pay private or parochial school tuition. Foes call them a fraud that will only siphon tax money from struggling public schools.

The nation's highest court endorsed a 6-year-old pilot program in Cleveland, Ohio, that provides parents a tax-supported education stipend. Parents may use the money to escape one of the worst-rated public school systems in the nation.

The court majority said the program does not put the government in the unconstitutional position of sponsoring religious indoctrination, even though more than 95% of the vouchers are used to subsidize Catholic or other religious schooling, AP reported.

Key to the court's reasoning was that children in the Cleveland program have a theoretical choice of attending religious schools, secular private academies, suburban public schools or charter schools run by parents or others outside the education establishment.

The fact that only a few secular schools and no suburban public schools have signed up to accept voucher students is not the fault of the program itself, its backers say. The dissenting justices -- David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer -- said the Cleveland program goes too far toward state-sponsored religion.

Both sides predicted the debate will now shift to state legislatures, AP said.