Students in religious schools eligible for state aid
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday delivered a big victory to parents seeking state assistance for child custody religious school education.
Conservative majority in court ruled 5-4 that states offering scholarships to students in private schools cannot exclude religious schools from such programs. The decision was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined liberal judges in three other major decisions this month.
The court did not ask states to fund religious education, ruling only that the programs cannot differentiate between religious and secular private schools.
âA state does not need to subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do it, it can’t disqualify some private schools just because they’re religious, âRoberts said.
It was a move long sought after by school choice supporters and fiercely opposed by teachers’ unions, who fear it will drain taxpayer dollars from struggling public schools.
The case was brought by three mothers of religious school students in Montana who applied for $ 500 scholarships funded by a state tax credit program. The state’s highest court overturned the program, citing the separation of church and state. In response, state officials terminated the entire program.
The Liberal Supreme Court justices addressed this point in three separate dissent. They said Montana resolved the discrimination by ending the program.
“Petitioners can still send their children to a religious school”, Associate Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted. “There is simply no scholarship fund to be obtained.”
But Roberts and other conservative justices said the no-aid policy had its roots in constitutional amendments in 37 states, many of which were rooted in 19th-century anti-Catholic sentiment, which barred religious schools from receiving awards. public funds.
“The Blaine Amendment was ‘born out of bigotry’ and ‘was born at a time of widespread hostility towards the Catholic Church and Catholics in general,'” he wrote. âMany of his state counterparts have a similar ‘shameful pedigree’. “
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The court decision brought together four Catholic judges with Deputy Judge Neil Gorsuch, who was raised in Catholicism but attended an Episcopal Church. The dissidents were three Jewish judges and one Catholic, Deputy Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
Kendra Espinoza, the main complainant, called this a “historic moment”. The court, she said on a conference call, gave her and other parents and students “the opportunity to exercise our religion as we see fit.”
Lawyers for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that represented Espinoza, said the immediate impact would be felt in several states, including Maine, Vermont, Missouri, Idaho and South Dakota.
Conservative groups had flooded the High Court with arguments supporting the cause of Espinoza and his compatriots in Montana. Having long sought legislative support for education voucher and tax credit programs, they saw the case as a legal promise land.
“The weight of this monumental decision is immense, as it is an extraordinary victory for student success, parental control, equal educational opportunity and First Amendment rights,” said Jeanne Allen , founder of the Center for Education Reform.
Teacher unions and civil rights groups have warned that if the floodgates open for funding religious schools, public schools that educate about 90% of students will suffer.
“Never in more than two centuries of American history has the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment been used as a weapon to fund and dismantle public education,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The decision has also been denounced by groups advocating the separation of church and state.
âLet’s be clear about what just happened: The Supreme Court has ruled that atheist taxpayers are now required to fund religious schools,â said Robyn Blumner, president of the Center for Inquiry. âMembers of non-Christian denominations are now required to fund Christian education. “
Nationally, tax credits and vouchers help approximately 500,000 students attend religious schools. But 17 states specifically block choice programs for religious schools.
The Trump administration sided with the parents. President Donald Trump has long defended prayer in schools, and January’s oral argument in the case was attended by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime supporter of religious schools.
“The Trump administration believes that the choice of school is a matter of civil rights and that no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school,” said the House press secretary Blanche, Kayleigh McEnany. The president, she said, “will fight for the choice of school, and he will always defend our first freedom: the free exercise of religion.”
The ruling was one in a long line of Supreme Court rulings supporting religious freedom. In recent years, judges have confirmed public prayer at government meetings and exempted certain religious objectors from laws concerning contraceptive insurance coverage and participation in same-sex marriages.
Last year the court ruled 7-2 that a mammoth Latin cross on government land in Bladensburg, Maryland, does not have to be moved or changed in the name of church-state separation.
And in a 2017 case cited by conservative judges as paving the way for the school choice decision, judges ruled 7-2 that a Lutheran Church of Missouri was eligible for public funds to resurface his playground. Roberts called the state’s exclusion from the church “odious to our Constitution.”
Civil rights groups and teachers’ unions cited a different 7-2 High Court ruling in 2004 when judges upheld a public scholarship program that excluded students pursuing theology degrees. But Roberts said it was different because the funds would have helped train a student for the ministry.
The High Court is expected to announce two more major religious freedom cases in the coming days. In one, religious nonprofits such as charities and universities want to be exempt from a government policy requiring employers to offer free insurance coverage for contraceptives. In the other, religious employers want to be free to make hiring and firing decisions without being bound by employment discrimination laws.