Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, is known for his commitment to religious freedom and preventing government from discriminating against religious organizations and individuals.
If confirmed, the new justice could help sway a case that could be a landmark in American education, paving the way for public funds to go to private schools.
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley involves a Missouri state program that provides playground safety grants to schools and other organizations. The church’s preschool, applied for a grant and ranked fifth out of 44 applicants based on the overall quality of its proposed plan.
Despite the ranking, the Missouri denied Trinity a grant because it is a religiously affiliated institution. The state cited, among other things, Article IX, Section 8 of the Missouri Constitution, commonly referred to as a Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public funding of any “school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination.” Around three dozen states have Blaine Amendments in their state constitutions, including large states such as California.
Trinity Lutheran sued Missouri saying that the state’s actions, based on the Missouri Blaine Amendment, violate the free exercise, equal protection, free speech and establishment clauses of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Opponents of school choice programs that allow public funding to follow a child to private schools, including those run by religious organizations, have used state Blaine Amendments to block their implementation.
For example, seizing on Nevada’s Blaine Amendment, opponents of that state’s recently enacted Education Savings Account program, which creates government funded individual accounts for parents to pay for private schooling for their children, sued to stop the program.
Adam Laxalt, Nevada’s attorney general, argued, “Nevada’s constitution does not require religious discrimination,” but also cited Trinity Lutheran saying, “we are hopeful that our nation’s highest court will confirm that the U.S. Constitution does not allow that either.”