In January 1996, a coalition of Ohio parents and teachers filed a lawsuit to block the program, arguing that it jeopardized the separation of church and state. An Ohio judge upheld the program, ruling that it fell “within the narrow channel through which state funds can permissibly flow to sectarian institutions.” The program officially began in September 1996, with some 1,700 children enrolled in 49 private and religious schools.
Voucher opponents promptly appealed the initial ruling, and in May 1997, an Ohio appeals court struck down the program, ruling that it violated constitutional provisions barring government aid to religion, as well as a separate state uniformity provision. State officials in turn appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which allowed the program to continue while it reviewed the case.
In May 1999, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the program did not violate constitutional prohibitions against government establishment of religion, asserting that it created only an “indirect” link, but that it was still invalid because of an irregularity in the way it had been enacted. The Ohio legislature reauthorized the program that summer as part of valid legislation. Voucher opponents, including teachers unions and civil liberties group, then brought the case to federal court. Amid legal skirmishing, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to allow the program to continue while the court challenges played out.
In December 1999, a U.S. district judge ruled against the program, saying that it was “skewed toward religion.” One year later, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld the ruling, adding that the program is “not neutral in that it discourages the participation by schools not funded by religious institutions....” A dissenting judge on the panel, however, wrote that the ruling was a “an exercise in raw judicial power having no basis in the First Amendment.”