Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens made the ruling in an opinion released Thursday. She ordered the state not to distribute any of the money.
She also denied the state's request earlier to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in March 2017 by more than a dozen education-related organizations, including the Michigan Association of School Boards, the Michigan Association of School Administrators and Michigan School Business Officials. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
At issue in the Michigan case is $2.5 million in public funding that the Legislature allocated for the 2016-17 school year to private schools to help them cover the cost of complying with state mandates. The Legislature allocated an additional $2.5 million for the current school year. Stephens, in an earlier ruling, had barred the state from distributing the funds pending the outcome of the case.
The lawsuit contended, among other things, that public funding for private schools violates the state constitution.
The state constitution says: "No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid ... directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary or secondary school."
"At the outset, the appropriations authorized by the statute are rendered suspect because they effectuate the direct payment of public funds to nonpublic schools," she wrote in her opinion. "Furthermore, these appropriations aid or maintain the nonpublic schools by supporting the employment of persons at nonpublic schools."
"This ruling is an important victory to those of us who are trying to make sure that public funding remains preserved for public schools," said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Michigan.
Korobkin said that it would have diverted "tax dollars from public education at precisely the time when our public schools need resources the most."
The defendants were the State of Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan Department of Education and State Superintendent Brian Whiston. It's unclear whether the defendants plan to appeal the ruling.