This week, the Supreme Court ruled in the Trinity Lutheran case that it is a violation of the first amendment to deny a church an otherwise available public benefit on due to it’s religious status. While the subject at hand was a playground, this could also be a blow to Blaine Amendments and, through that, a boon for school choice.
So-called Blaine Amendments are a throwback to 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry, and are named for Sen James G. Blaine of Maine, who tried (and failed) to create a federal Constitutional Amendment in 1875. Several states, however, did add similar amendments which would prevent government funding for Catholic schools. They are currently being used in the battle against school choice as a way to prevent families from exercising their right to choose the education that they see best for their children. As the Institute for Justice says:
The notorious Blaine Amendments—found in 37 state constitutions—were created to block Catholic demands for equal treatment of their schools. The anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic provisions aimed to bar public funding of so-called “sectarian”—understood to mean Catholic—schools or institutions. Since then, many state courts in interpreting their Blaine Amendments have allowed parents to select religious educational options for their children using some form of state assistance. Almost as many, however, restricted such options. The remainder provided mixed interpretations or have not interpreted their Blaine Amendments.
For that reason, the Trinity decision could reverberate through the school choice space, they said.
Today’s ruling against the state bodes well for school choice programs by reaffirming the principle that the government must remain neutral with regards to religion and may not single out religious entities for disfavored treatment.
The press release went on to say:
“Today’s decision reaffirms the fundamental principle that government must be neutral with respect to religion and therefore cannot exclude religious institutions from otherwise generally available public benefit programs,” explained Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice (IJ), which filed an amicus brief in support of the preschool. “This principle of religious neutrality—that government may neither favor nor disfavor religion—applies whether the government is enabling schools to resurface their playgrounds or empowering parents to direct their children’s education.”
In fact, there has already been a positive development. Just two days after the Trinity decision, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Colorado Supreme Court decision which struck down a school choice program. The state supreme court has been instructed to reconsider in light of Trinity.
“Today’s development gives hope to all Douglas County families—indeed, all American families—who simply want the right to choose the schools that are best for their kids,” said IJ President Scott Bullock in a press release. “Douglas County tried to give its families every opportunity for the best possible education for their children. While that opportunity was taken away by the Colorado Supreme Court’s earlier ruling, it appears that Douglas County families may soon get it back.”