fdu_public_mind_pollMADISON, NJ - A sizable majority of the public say it’s OK for states to give tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools with a religious affiliation. According to a national poll of registered voters by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind™, just one in four (26%) say that by giving the tax discounts the state is supporting religious schools, while three in five (60%) say such credits are supporting school choice.

The matter was debated this year before the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn.  At root the question was whether such tax credits for parents of kids enrolling in private, religiously-affiliated schools are a breach of the First Amendment’s rule against the “establishment of religion.”

The court’s decision was announced today. The 5-to-4 ruling sidestepped the issue of establishment altogether by holding that the plaintiffs had no standing to bring suit. The majority ruled that precisely because it was “a tax credit as opposed to a governmental expenditure,” those who brought the suit lacked legal authority to bring the case.

“Even though the Supreme Court declined to rule on the underlying, substantive issue in this case—whether the tax credits infringe upon constitutional protections—this issue is not going away,” said Bruce Peabody, professor of political science at FDU and editor of the book The Politics of Judicial Independence. “The case brought out four dissents, a signal that those justices were prepared to decide the substantive issue.  Just as important a different plaintiff with a more specific interest in the case will meet the Court’s standing criteria.”

Among various segments of the public, some important differences are also evident. Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to conclude that tax credits amount to state support of religion.  Three-quarters of Republicans (74%), on the other hand, say those tax credits are merely supporting school choice, while just 16% of Republicans object that the state aid is support for religious schools.

“In making this ruling on such narrow grounds, the court virtually guarantees that the plaintiffs in one guise or another will be back another day,” said Peter Woolley, a political scientist and director of the poll.

The differences in the poll are not just of matter of party. Voters aged 30-44, the prime child-rearing years, are more likely than other age groups to say tax credits support parents’ right to choose schools rather than supporting religious schools.

The university-based research center conducted a national poll focusing on four prominent cases considered this year by the country’s highest court: Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants, Schwarzenegger v. Plata, Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, and Alford v. Greene.

The Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of 800 registered voters nationwide was conducted by telephone using both landlines and cell phones from March 21, 2011 through March 28, 2011, and has a margin of error of +/-3.5 percentage points.