A federal judge may close one of the oldest school-voucher programs in the country, saying its "primary effect of advancing religion" violates church-state limits.

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr., halted new enrollments in the four-year-old Cleveland school-voucher program after originally ruling to shut down the entire program on the eve of the new school year. Groups supporting public-education organizations sued to stop the program, which was funded by the state of Ohio. The voucher system paid up to $2,500 in tuition costs, so children from lower-income families were given the option of attending private schools.

About 4,000 students from kindergarten through fifth grade were participating in the Cleveland program, and some 587 students were newly enrolled. After the Ohio legislature first enacted the school-voucher program in 1995, a similar suit challenged its constitutionality. The Supreme Court ruled in May that the program does not violate the separation of church and state, but it found fault with legislative procedures. The program was reinstated in July by a measure supported by Gov. Bob Taft. Other states have enacted voucher programs as well. Florida recently began offering school vouchers on a statewide basis, and the city of Milwaukee has used vouchers since 1990. The Cleveland ruling is under appeal, and a full trial may ensue at a later date.

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