Supreme Court rejects ruling against grants to religious schools
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a lower court ruling banning the use of public funds to pay for children’s attendance at private religious schools, a day after handing down a landmark ruling reducing the separation of church and state.
Judges ordered Colorado’s highest court to reconsider the legality of school ‘voucher’ programs in light of Monday’s ruling that churches and other religious entities cannot be outright denied public money, even in states whose constitutions explicitly prohibit such funding.
In the ruling, which could bolster the case for vouchers and other grants to religious schools, judges sided with a Missouri church that objected to being denied access to public funding for a playground improvement project because the state constitution prohibits public funding of religious entities. .
Judges also on Tuesday rejected a lower court ruling in a similar case in New Mexico involving a state program that lends textbooks to schools, public and private, including religious ones, asking that court to reconsider as well. Monday’s church decision.
There is a fierce debate in the United States over school vouchers, which many religious conservatives advocate and those against government funding for religious purposes oppose. Republican President Donald Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a strong supporter of these “school choice” plans.
The Colorado case came after the Douglas County School District outside of Denver passed a voucher program in 2011 to help pay tuition for some private schools, most of which were affiliated to religions. The district argued that introducing competition into education would improve public schools.
Individual taxpayers and a group called Taxpayers For Public Education, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, have challenged the voucher program, arguing that it violates a 19th-century provision of the state constitution prohibiting public funding religious entities. The Colorado Supreme Court in 2015 struck down the county’s program on this basis.
ALLEGED RELIGIOUS HARM
The school district, along with the Colorado state government and supporters of the vouchers, appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The district argued that the ban on funding religious entities at the heart of the controversy is a so-called Blaine Amendment, enshrined in the Colorado state constitution in 1876 as a form of anti-Catholic bias, ” at a time when public institutions readily adopted Protestantism.”
The dismissal of the state court ruling sends a strong signal that the High Court “will not condone the use of the Blaine Amendments to exclude religious options from school choice programs,” said attorney Michael Bindas of the Conservative advocacy group from the Institute for Justice, representing three families with children who had received vouchers.
The district said the state constitution’s ban violates U.S. Constitutional guarantees of the free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law. “Now is the time to end this discrimination,” he added.
Voucher program challengers dispute that the state’s constitutional language was a Blaine Amendment. They told the judges the program was a ploy to provide public funds to religious schools “disguised as federal constitutional law.”
An attorney for the challengers, Matthew Douglas, said Monday’s church decision does not address religious uses of government funding. Douglas predicted that the Colorado court would again uphold its restriction on the program.
In the New Mexico case, parents of public school students in 2012 challenged a textbook loan program, saying it violated the state constitution’s ban on public funding of schools religious or private. They said the program forced them to support the “religious dictates of other people with whom they disagreed”.
In 2015, the state Supreme Court sided with the parents, prompting an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.