The U.S. Supreme Court Monday upheld the right of a religious preschool in Missouri to benefit from state funding to improve playground safety. This case is important as it has repercussions that extend not only to religious liberty but to school choice as well.
The 7-2 decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer got the support of liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, along with the five more conservative jurists, and could open the door to expanding school choice programs, although just how broadly the principles in this case will be applied is still unknown.
Nearly 40 states have Blaine Amendments, which mostly seek to block any public funding for religious schools, and Missouri’s amendment was at the heart of this case. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, in their concurring opinion, signaled they are open to extending the ruling beyond the playground.
Weakening the grip of Blaine Amendments on states’ private choice programs would be a major victory for school choice advocates.
“We’re hopeful,” says Dick Komer, senior attorney and Blaine Amendment exert at the Institute for Justice.
The Trinity case also shares similarities with a legal challenge in Michigan that seeks to end a $2.5 million state budget line item to help private schools meet state health and safety mandates, such as fire and tornado drills, vaccination records and criminal background checks.
Unfortunately, Michigan’s Blaine language is the most restrictive in the country, so it’s unlikely this case will have much impact here.
Michigan will still be left behind, Komer says.
This state’s amendment goes beyond blocking public funds to religious schools and institutions. It also draws a firm line forbidding state money to flow in any form, including tax credits or vouchers, to all nonpublic schools.
Despite that, the High Court’s decision is a hopeful sign to some Michigan stakeholders.
The Michigan Catholic Conference, a defender of private choice options, is looking closely at the case and its implications here.
“The Court handed down a welcome decision today striking an inherently discriminatory practice that punished a school simply because of its religious mission,” stated Paul Long, MCC president and CEO. “The 7-2 ruling will likely widen the space for conversation and public policies that treat all students equally, regardless of where they receive their education.”
State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, and chair of the House school aid appropriations subcommittee, has championed school choice and led the effort to include the mandate reimbursement funding for private schools.
He sees the Missouri case as nearly identical to Michigan’s, since it’s dealing with safety, and he’s also buoyed it will be the “beginning of the end of Blaine Amendments.”
Another action the Supreme Court made Tuesday supports that idea.
In light of its Trinity decision, the court vacated and remanded a 2015 Colorado Supreme Court judgment against a local private choice scholarship program since it allowed religious schools to participate. Colorado’s Blaine Amendment had been the rationale in the case to block public funding for the program.
Other states could very well enjoy expanded private school programs thanks to these decisions. Yet Michigan will almost certainly be left out of these valuable options for families until choice supporters undertake the challenging task of changing the state constitution.