Tuesday, April 18, 2017

SCOTUS could clear roadblocks to School Vouchers

“No portion of any fund or tax now existing, 
or that may hereafter be raised or levied for educational purposes,
 shall be appropriated to, or used by, or in aid of, 
any church, sectarian or denominational school.” 
-- Kentucky Constitution, @ Section 189

This from Morning Education:
The Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to hear a case that could have huge implications
for school voucher programs. At issue is an 1875 provision of Missouri's Constitution banning public money from going "directly or indirectly" to religious groups, including schools. Similar provisions, called Blaine Amendments, exist in roughly three dozen states and have been a major barrier to school vouchers. They've also proved resilient, surviving numerous state ballot repeal efforts - including an unsuccessful Michigan initiative pushed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos nearly two decades ago.

Religious groups see this and a related Colorado case as their best shots at scrapping the amendments - and they believe Neil Gorsuch, who just took his seat on the high court, will take their side. They point to Gorsuch's deference to religious rights in other cases. Most notably, while on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, he backed a religious challenge to the Affordable Care Act - joining the panel's majority in the Hobby Lobby case to rule that the Obama administration could not require a closely-held business to offer contraceptive coverage if that interfered with the owners' religious beliefs - a decision later upheld by the Supreme Court. In another case, he ruled that a Wyoming prison had to provide a sweat lodge to a Native American for his religious practices.

Court watchers believe Gorsuch might cast a tie-breaking vote since the court had apparently delayed arguments in the Missouri case until they had a ninth justice. "The justices have likely seen this as a case on which they would have been divided four to four," said Stephen Wermiel, a constitutional law professor at American University. "They must expect that Gorsuch will be the deciding fifth vote."

There is a chance the case could get tossed out . The case hinges on the state's denial of Trinity Lutheran Church's request for a grant to reimburse the cost of resurfacing its preschool playground with recycled tires. State officials said the Blaine Amendment prevented it from aiding the church in any way. But late last week, Missouri's newly elected Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, announced that he has directed the state agency to consider religious organizations for such grants. The parties on both sides must submit their views by noon today on whether the the announcement makes the legal dispute moot. Even if the justices dismiss this case, they could soon hear the same issues in a pending Colorado case in which the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State claim a school voucher program violates the state's no-aid clause.

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