PHOENIX — State lawmakers are free to give parents what amounts to a voucher of public funds to educate their children at any private or parochial school they want, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled today.

In a unanimous ruling, the judges rejected arguments by the Arizona Education and others that providing funds that wind up in the hands of religious schools violates a state constitutional provision barring public funds from being used for religious worship or instruction. Judge Jon Thompson, writing for the court, said the fact that it is the parents who decide the use of the funds, designated as "empowerment scholarship accounts," makes who ultimately gets the dollars irrelevant.

"The ESA students are pursuing a basic secondary education consistent with state standards," he wrote. "They are not pursing a course of religious study.''

And Thompson said the vouchers do not result in the state encouraging the preference of one religion over another, or religion over atheism.

"Any aid to religious schools would be the result of the genuine and independent private choice of parents," he said.

The court also rebuffed claims that the program runs afoul of another constitutional provision barring aid to any parochial r private school.

"The specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools," Thompson wrote.

Today's ruling most immediately deals with the vouchers lawmakers approved in 2011 to students with disabilities.

But the Legislature has since expanded the program for any students attending schools rated D or F. And the same logic that the court laid out today eventually could be used to expand the program to the parents of the more than one million students in public schools in Arizona.

Read more in tomorrow's Star

Senior Editor, News, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Az.