Church, state, and school: What might Supreme Court ruling mean for vouchers?
Thirty-eight states have amendments prohibiting state money from going to religious organizations. A Supreme Court case Wednesday, about whether a religious private school is eligible for state grant money, could change that.
—Dig beneath the rubber playground surface at issue in the latest landmark case before the United States Supreme Court and you’ll find a tricky question – a conundrum born out of the gray area between the Constitution’s two key religious protection provisions.
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find potentially momentous implications for the nationwide debate over school choice voucher programs.
The case to be argued before the high court on Wednesday – now with a full complement of nine justices after Justice Neil Gorsuch took his seat at the bench this week – dates back to 2012, when the Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., applied for a state grant to fund the resurfacing of its preschool’s playground with recycled tire rubber. While the state ranked the church’s application fifth out of the 44 it received, it denied the application, citing a provision in the Missouri constitution – known colloquially as a Blaine amendment – that prohibits money from the state treasury from going “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”Trinity Lutheran challenged the decision in federal court, saying it violated both the free exercise and equal protection provisions of the First Amendment, but both the district court and the 8th Circuit court of Appeals ruled for Missouri. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case 15 months ago, and the unusually long wait before arguments (the longest such delay in 2015 was 12 months) is one sign of how contentious the case could be, with the justices possibly delaying until a ninth justice took office to avoid a 4-to-4 tie. (Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens announced a change in the state policy last week, saying religious organizations are now eligible for those grants, but the case itself is still scheduled to proceed.)
The Trinity case could just be the beginning of “a pivotal period” for the school voucher movement in America, says Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas.
“It’s either going to reach escape velocity and just become a much more prominent part of our education system,” he says, “or it’s going to be heavily constrained in this moment.”
The core question is complex, asking at what point separating church and state becomes so involved that it harms churches. But what does it have to do with vouchers programs?
The answer lies in the Blaine amendments. Modeled on – and named after – a failed amendment to the federal constitution proposed by 19th-century Republican Congressman James Blaine, they are provisions in state constitutions that prohibit direct government aid to parochial schools (provisions that historians believe were motivated by a fear of Catholic teachings infiltrating schools).
Missouri is one of 38 states with such an amendment, and since about two-thirds of schools Church, state, and school: What might Supreme Court ruling mean for vouchers? - CSMonitor.com: