3 Supreme Court Rulings Embolden Advocates of Public Funding for Faith-based Schools

Media equipment outside the Supreme Court on June 26 in Washington, D.C. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
Media equipment outside the Supreme Court on June 26 in Washington, D.C. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court this week made three decisions that have advocates of public funding of religious schools more hopeful than they have been in years about the future of school vouchers — and critics ranging from concerned to near-apoplectic.

The court did not make any determinative ruling on whether it would embrace the notion of public funding for religious education — which is now banned by the constitutions of a majority of the states — but it made clear it is not opposed to the use of some public money going to religious institutions for certain reasons, and it suggested that going further is not out of the realm of possibility.

There was a lot of attention given to the court’s Monday ruling that said states could not exclude religious institutions from participating in state-funded programs if those programs have a secular intent. The case, Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, involved a Missouri church that had sought funding from a state program to refurbish its preschool playground but was initially denied because the state Constitution forbids financially supporting a religious institution. The church sued, and while the policy in the state was subsequently changed by a new governor, the case made it to the high court, where, by a 7 to 2 vote, justices said that the state’s original decision violated the U.S. Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other supporters of school voucher and similar programs — which use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition and other educational costs — hailed the decision, saying that it marked “a great day for the Constitution” and that Americans should “celebrate the fact that programs designed to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on religious affiliation.”

Opponents saw the decision as a direct hit on the doctrine of separation of church and state, and as a signal that the Supreme Court seemed to be on its way to ruling against what is known as the Blaine amendments, which are provisions in the constitutions of Missouri and several dozen other states that forbid the state government from using public funds for “any church, sector or denomination of religion.” Trinity Lutheran was initially denied funding for its preschool playground renovation based on Missouri’s Blaine amendment.

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SOURCE: Valerie Strauss  
The Washington Post