It has been a busy week for the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and school choice decisions were definitely a part of the docket.
Regarding the first decision, the Washington Post reports that SCOTUS ruled in a rather amazing 7-2 decision that the state of Missouri erred in denying funding to a church school for playground safety equipment. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. ruled that “…the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
The Trinity Lutheran school ruling particularly raises eyebrows because it nibbles away at provisions in a number of state constitutions that prohibit providing public funding to private religious schools. The SCOTUS ruling signals those state restrictions might run afoul of the US Constitution.
By the way, these state constitutional provisions, often referred to as “Blaine Amendments,” were instituted in the late 1800’s as an attack on the growing presence of Catholic schools in the US. Kentucky is one of the states with Blaine language in its constitution, making the SCOTUS ruling of particular interest in the commonwealth.
While important, the Trinity ruling was regarded by the Washington Post and others as a narrow one that might not, by itself, signal a major challenge to Blaine Amendments in general might be in the offing.
That is why two more SCOTUS decisions, based in part on the Trinity Lutheran case, are especially important.
In the first of those actions, SCOTUS told the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider a 2015 decision that a voucher program in the Douglas County schools in that state was unconstitutional. That Colorado ruling was based on Blaine language in that state’s constitution.
Finally, yet another case from Arizona fleshes out what seems to be friendliness in SCOTUS for issues favoring school choice interests. In this one, the New Mexico Supreme Court was told to review its decision to deny textbook funding to private schools, including religious schools. The Albuquerque Journal reports:
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion directs New Mexico justices to reconsider the textbook funding case in light of the Missouri playground case, in which justices decided it is unconstitutional to ban public funds from paying for certain projects at religious schools based solely on the schools’ private or religious status.”
The Journal additionally reports:
“’States are getting a clear message from the Supreme Court: They can’t exclude people from participating in government programs because of their religion,’ said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, the nonprofit law firm that represented the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools.”
There also are some vague reports that SCOTUS told two other states with cases similar to those in New Mexico and Colorado to review their Blaine-based rulings, but we have not discovered details.
Overall, this has been a very important week for school choice supporters. While some would like the Trinity Lutheran decision to be considered only a very narrow ruling, the additional SCOTUS actions this week in the New Mexico and Colorado cases indicate the US Supreme Court actually has other ideas. Given the Trinity case’s virtually immediate fallout in Colorado and New Mexico, the overall implications of this week’s SCOTUS activities could have major implications for the constitutionality of the anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments that might result in greatly expanded opportunities for more school choice.