Schooled Reporting on education

Religious scholars need not apply?

Education | The Supreme Court takes on what could become a landmark school choice case
by Kyle Ziemnick
Posted 7/03/19, 04:27 pm

Kendra Espinoza worked two jobs to scrape enough money together to send her two daughters to Stillwater Christian School four years ago after they had problems in their public school. The Montana single mother was also counting on scholarship money from a program funded by donors who received a new state tax credit for giving to scholarships for private schools, both religious and secular. But the Montana Department of Revenue refused to allow any money from the program to go to students at faith-based schools. Espinoza and two other mothers sued the state, and the U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday it would hear their case.

The law Montana officials used to justify restricting the scholarship funds is known there and elsewhere as the Blaine Amendment, named after former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives James G. Blaine. Montana added such an amendment to its state constitution in 1889. Tim Keller, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm representing Espinoza and the two other mothers, told me 37 states have passed their own version of the amendment. It was originally designed on the federal level to target Catholic schools and has become “a favored weapon of the opponents of school choice,” Keller said.

After Espinoza and the other families sued, the Montana Supreme Court not only ruled against them in a 5-2 decision but also found that the entire school choice program was unconstitutional and struck down the tax credits available to donors.

Keller said the Institute for Justice plans to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that the school choice program didn’t aid schools—as is required to violate the Blaine Amendment—but rather helped individuals. That argument has worked in places like Wisconsin and Puerto Rico, he said.

But others want to go further. John Bursch, an attorney with the religious liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, told me the court ought to strike down Blaine amendments altogether. ADF has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

“It makes more sense for a federal court to say, across the board, ‘We don’t tolerate this kind of religious animosity,’” Bursch said. “[Blaine amendments] should be burned and put on the scrapheap of history.” He referenced an example in Michigan, where the state forced private religious schools to complete mandated procedures like fire drills and background checks but could not fund them because of the state’s Blaine Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case in 2017, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, in which a Missouri Lutheran church tried to resurface its playground with recycled tire material through a state grant program. State officials rejected the school’s application because it was a religious organization. But the court found that denying the church’s request violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The decision prevented the imposition of “special disabilities on the basis of religious views or religious status.”

If the highest court in the land were to strike down Blaine amendments across the country, Bursch said, “it would open the door at the federal and state level for money to flow into private religious schools. It opens up the opportunity for religious schools to compete for government dollars on an equal footing with everyone else.”

Oral arguments in the Espinoza case won’t happen until at least the fall, and they will probably be closer to the end of the year, Keller said. A decision would most likely come in the spring of 2020. —Kyle Ziemnick

Associated Press/Photo by David Zalubowski (file) Associated Press/Photo by David Zalubowski (file) STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado

Charter continues after shooting

A Colorado charter school received a conditional five-year contract renewal Saturday after a fatal shooting there in May prompted questions about its safety, reporting, and staffing measures.

Two students attacked STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, wounding eight people and killing one 18-year-old classmate who tackled one of the shooters. The two teenagers charged in the attack told police they knew which entrances to use to avoid getting caught, according to court documents. The school’s private security guard mistakenly fired at a sheriff’s deputy and wounded a student during the attack. He later captured one of the shooters.

Hours before the school was set to lose its contract, the Douglas County Board of Education unanimously renewed it after heated negotiations. The new contract requires higher staff-to-student ratios and increased training in threat and safety assessments. The school also must contract with local law enforcement agencies for tightened security and hire assigned officers for its K-12 programs.

Parents of students argued the science and math–focused school provides a haven for children who struggle in the traditional public school system. —Mary Jackson

Associated Press/Photo by Richard Vogel Associated Press/Photo by Richard Vogel George Tyndall at Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday

Campus gynecologist arrested

George Tyndall, a former longtime campus gynecologist at the University of Southern California, was arrested last week on charges of 29 felonies, including the sexual assault of 16 women.

Authorities accused Tyndall, 72, of sexually abusing hundreds of women at the campus student health center. Patients ranging from ages 17 to 29 reported the abuse, prompting a Los Angeles police investigation that lasted more than a year. Tyndall’s charges include 18 counts of sexual penetration and 11 counts of sexual battery by fraud.

Victims visited the center for annual exams or other treatment. They were unaware of what was happening because Tyndall told them it was part of medical treatment, according to the criminal complaint.

Tyndall has denied any wrongdoing. He could face up to 53 years in prison if convicted. —M.J.

Kyle Ziemnick

Kyle is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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Comments

  • JennyBeth
    Posted: Thu, 07/04/2019 01:35 pm

    It would probably be for the best if religious schools didn't get government money--it's easy to become dependent on it, and then what happens when the governments start requiring liberal sex ed, non-discrimination for openly LGBTQ teachers and administrators, abortion funding for employees, etc. to continue receiving the funds? The schools may be facing a "compromise or close" scenario.

  • Hawkdriver
    Posted: Sat, 07/06/2019 09:32 am

    My wife and I went to private schools K-12 and, by God's Grace, we've homeschooled all 5 of our children.  We support private, Biblically centered Christian education.

    I understand what you are saying, but, if this Supreme Court case really does open the flood gates of public funding to private schools, I think we would be foolish not to Biblically educate as many young people as possible in our country.  We need God's Truth in this nation.  If the money starts coming, use it wisely.  Our local Christian school that we support started using state money last year making sure they budgeted to live without it.  They greatly increased their enrollment and now more kids are hearing God's truth.  If the money starts coming with strings attached, stop taking it.  It wouldn't be the first time the government tried to control Christian education.

    One thing to be very, very concerned about, however, is the influence of kids coming from non-Christian homes with much lower or no standards on entertainment, discipline, etc.  If this case opens the funding and Christians take it, we should consider how kids are brought in.  Maybe, we have hybrid schools that work specifically to teach the Good News of Christ (evangelize) and more basic discipleship in one school and a separate school for those who are already seeking Christ whole heartedly but aren't quite ready for the full onslaught of immorality prevalent in our society.  We should be extremely prayerful, Biblically wise and careful no matter how we proceed.  Thoughts?

  • news2me
    Posted: Sat, 07/06/2019 05:58 pm

    Non-Christian students have been attending Christian schools for a long time. Non-Christian parents have no problem stating that they are Christians. They take their troubled child who is dealing &/or using drugs (or just being a bully) out of public school and put the child into a Christian school. Parents and teachers unaware of this get quite a lesson. Parents should always discern who they allow their children to play with or sleep over. Not all parents have the same restrictions about what their children do or watch. We learned this thru Home Schooling. Even home-schooled families may have different morals than your family. Even pastors with children might have different morals than you might expect. Have seen a pastor's children who had CABLE TV right in their own bedrooms. And then they welcomed missionary families with children to stay at their home while they were away. 

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