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A federal judge ruled Monday that Cleveland's program to give some 3,600 poor children taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools violated a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

The ruling is the latest -- but certainly not the last -- chapter in the contentious national battle over vouchers. The dispute pits advocates of "school choice" against opponents of public funding for private schools.

Under the Cleveland program, students from kindergarten through the sixth grade may receive up to $2,500 in vouchers to attend private schools in Cleveland. Most of the 56 participating institutions are religious.

In his opinion, Judge Solomon Oliver wrote that the program violates the First Amendment because it advances religion and creates an incentive for students to attend religious schools.

Oliver's decision is in line with decisions out of Maine and Vermont. Courts there also have said that using public dollars for education in religious schools is unconstitutional.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft said the state planned to appeal.

Taft said Ohio wants to prevent any further disruption "to the lives of the families who seek to improve their children's educations through the Cleveland scholarship program."

Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Monday's ruling "should help make the voucher sideshow a fad of the past."

"This is an opportunity to refocus effort and attention on all 80,000 Cleveland public-school students and to expand programs there that are showing great promise."

The children are expected to remain in the program during the appeal, which will take the case to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati and possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In November the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, granted a request by Ohio's attorney general to put a stay on Oliver's order barring new students from joining the program.

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