Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Three cert petitions were recently filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in an important case involving school choice and religious rights in Colorado. The local school district in Douglas County adopted a neutral program of scholarships for families to use for sending their children to any private school, religious or nonreligious. But the Colorado Supreme Court held that religious schools and families must be singled out for exclusion from this program; 3 of the 4 justices in the majority relied on Colorado's Blaine Amendment, the constitutional provision that prohibits aid to "sectarian" schools. The petitions argue that the Colorado court's ruling requiring this exclusion (1) ignores the 19th-century animus and prejudice against Catholics that motivated Colorado's and other states' anti-aid provisions, and (2) independent of this historical taint, violates the First Amendment by singling out religious choices for discriminatory denial of aid. (Here is one of the petitions, the school district's, with links to petitions by the state and by intervening parents.)
There's now an amicus brief from the Christian Legal Society, the Becket Fund, and others supporting the cert petitions. We expand on the argument about the prejudice-tainted background of state Blaine Amendments. We also show why the passage of time since their enactment does not immunize them from constitutional review based on their discriminatory motivation and the discrimination they are accomplishing today.
Finally, we explain why the Court ought to take this case: (1) among other things, state judges and other officials have (wrongly) come to think they have carte blanche to exclude people choosing religious options from generally available state benefits, and (2) the federal government bears partial responsibility for these discriminatory provisions because it pressured states joining the Union in the late 1800s and early 1900s to include such provisions as a condition of admission.
The University of St. Thomas Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic, which I direct, wrote the amicus brief. Thanks to my student Dan Burns for doing a significant amount of the drafting.
Fingers crossed on this case! It's obviously always difficult to get cert; and school choice cases are hard to bring before the Supreme Court. But the historical evidence of anti-Catholic animus in Colorado is as strong as that in any state. This may be the case that gets the Court's attention on how state constitutional provisions are being used to require insupportable discrimination against religiously grounded schooling.