US bishops speak up on school choice as Supreme Court hears case

US bishops speak up on school choice as Supreme Court hears case

US Supreme Court. Credit: fstockfoto/Shutterstock.
US Supreme Court. Credit: fstockfoto/Shutterstock.

.- States should not deny tax credit programs to families who choose religious private schools, said members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a case addressing the issue of school choice.

“The case before the Supreme Court today concerns whether the Constitution offers states a license to discriminate against religion,” said Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, head of the Committee on Catholic Education.

“Our country’s tradition of non-establishment of religion does not mean that governments can deny otherwise available benefits on the basis of religious status,” they said in a Jan. 22 statement.

“Indeed, religious persons and organizations should, like everyone else, be allowed to participate in government programs that are open to all. This is an issue of justice for people of all faith communities.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Kendra Espinoza, a mother of two daughters attending a Christian school in Kalispell, Montana, is the lead plaintiff in the case.

An 1889 amendment to the Montana state constitution, known as a Blaine Amendment, prohibits both direct and indirect state aid to religious institutions. The amendment was passed a second time when the state constitution was revised and rewritten in 1972.

The Montana Supreme Court originally decided the case 5-2 during late 2018.

That ruling found that the state’s tax credit program, which began in 2015 and provided for a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for a person’s donation to nonprofit student scholarship organizations, was allowing the Montana legislature to “indirectly pay tuition at private, religiously-affiliated schools” in violation of state law.

The Supreme Court granted cert to the case June 28, 2019.

Montana is just one of 38 states with similar “no-aid” provisions in its constitution, NPR reports.

So-called Blaine Amendments have their roots in anti-Catholic sentiment of the late 19th century, according to historians and religious liberty advocates.

In the years following the Civil War, there was widespread suspicion and even open hostility toward Catholics in the U.S., especially toward immigrant Catholic populations from Europe.

Public schools at the time were largely Protestant, with no single Christian denomination in charge, and many Catholics attended parochial schools which were seen as “sectarian” by prominent public figures, historian John T. McGreevy explained in his book “Catholicism and American Freedom.”

Public figures, he notes, including one current and one future U.S. president at the time, pushed against taxpayer funding of Catholic schools and even advocated for an increase in the taxation of Catholic Church property in the U.S.

President Ulysses S. Grant pushed for a 1875 federal amendment by Sen. James Blaine of Maine that prohibited taxpayer funding of “sectarian” schools – the original “Blaine Amendment.” It failed in the Senate, but the federal amendment took form at the state level and many states eventually passed versions of the bill barring state funding of Catholic schools.

In the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision Mitchell v. Helms, a four-justice plurality insisted that the Blaine Amendment’s motive to deny public funding of “sectarian” institutions was bigoted, particularly against Catholics. The court ruled that a religious school could receive a federal grant under certain conditions.

In 2017, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer that a church property couldn’t be barred from a state renovation program simply on account of its religious affiliation.

“This case [Espinoza] is not only about constitutional law. It is about whether our nation will continue to tolerate this strain of anti-Catholic bigotry,” the bishops continued.

“Blaine Amendments...were never meant to ensure government neutrality towards religion, but were expressions of hostility toward the Catholic Church. We hope that the Supreme Court will take this opportunity to bring an end to this shameful legacy.”

The Second Vatican Council's 1965 declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum educationis, said that parents “must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.”

“Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children,” the document states.

President Donald Trump on Jan. 16 issued new rules for nine federal agencies. The rules seek to ensure that federal government social service programs are administered in line with the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, so that religious groups are not barred simply on account of their religious status.

The National Catholic Educational Association, which includes more than 150,000 educators serving 1.9 million Catholic school students across the U.S., is supportive of a proposed plan to create a federal tax credit-based scholarship program that could provide a boost for parents who want to send their children to Catholic school. The proposed scheme, which the U.S. Department of Education calls Education Freedom Scholarships, would be funded through taxpayers’ voluntary contributions to state-identified Scholarship Granting Organizations.

Should the proposal become law, donors will receive a federal tax credit equal to their contribution.

Tags: Religious freedom, Catholic News, Supreme Court, Blaine Amendment, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue

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