Americans United, a national organization that promotes separation of church and state, says Utah's proposed initiative to grant tax credits to parents whose children attend private schools is unconstitutional.

Proposition C, which would give these parents a tax break of $600 to $700, "violates the constitutional principle of church-state separation and could not withstand a legal challenge," the organization says.The proposal is unconstitutional, said Americans United's Robert L. Maddox, because it offers public assistance to private religious schools. Most of Utah's private schools, like their counterparts throughout the country, are sponsored by church groups, he noted.

Similar tax credit schemes have included public school costs in their benefit packages - an element lacking in the Utah proposal, he said.

"No court has ever upheld a grant program designed to aid only private schools," he said. "The courts have wisely ruled that public funds taken from the taypayer should be spent for public purposes. Back-door methods of funding religious schools - such as the Utah proposal - run afoul of the rights of all citizens."

Taxpayers could face increased burdens to offset the credit for a special interest group, Maddox said. At the same time, private schools could find themselves facing state attempts to control their operations.

"The government does not hand out money without strings attached," he said. "For private schools to remained truly private, they must refuse public funds."

Americans United is a 50,000-member group located in Silver Springs, Md. It is currently supporting a court case that challenges tax breaks for parochial schools in Iowa.