By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday against a Montana state constitutional provision that barred aid to religiously-affiliated schools solely because of their religious character.
This ruling means that states cannot cut religious schools out of programs that send public money to private education. It also opens the door to parents in Montana seeking to use a tax credit scholarship program to send their children to private schools.
The 5 – 4 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue has been lauded by U.S. Bishops as “good news” which promotes the “common good.”
In an interview with Vatican News, the Chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference Committee for Religious Liberty, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, speaks on the recent decision.
The Supreme court ruling
Welcoming the ruling, Archbishop Wenski said it is “a great thing for religious liberty” as it “strengthens the position” of those in support of funding to religious schools.
He explained that the ruling basically set aside the “Blaine language” present in the constitution of the state of Montana and about thirty-seven other states.
Providing some background to the “Blaine Amendment”, Archbishop Wenski said that Blaine was a 19th century U.S. senator and presidential candidate who almost succeeded in passing a “no aid” amendment to the U.S. constitution as regards funding for sectarian schools.
He further noted that the Blaine Amendment discriminated against Catholic schools because most of the public schools at that time were protestant in their administration. He described them as a “vestige of bigotry from another age” which portrayed “anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant nativist sentiments” that prevailed in the U.S. in the nineteenth century.
According to Archbishop Wenski, Tuesday’s ruling “underscores the right of people of faith to serve their communities and also to serve it in the way of education. It also upholds the rights of parents to be the first ones who determine who should or how their children should be educated.”
Church and state
Responding to a question about the implication of the ruling regarding the separation between church and state, Archbishop Wenski cautioned against its interpretation in “extreme ways.”
He said that “the separation of church and state was meant to prevent the state from taking over religion, but it was not meant to keep religious beliefs or religious influences from society.”
Giving the examples of countries like France, Canada and Australia, he explained that these countries, which are more secular than the United States, have no problems with supporting parents who send their children to confessional or religious schools.
School choice debate
Speaking on the question of students’ choice to attend other public schools outside their neighborhoods, Archbishop Wenski indicated his support for having private schools as alternatives.
He explained that public-school teacher unions, that oppose support for private schools and want to “maintain their monopoly over education”, represent a contributing factor to the debate. But, said the Archbishop, “when there is monopoly, we see the education system fails the students.”
“Having these private schools supported by vouchers, in which parents can choose the school that is best for their child, introduces a level of competition,” he said, adding that he thinks it “improves the public schools as well.”
Regarding the issue of what is perceived to be a lesser religious influence of non-Catholic institutions in education, Archbishop Wenski remarked that a lot of other religious groups have also started their own schools.
He attributed this trend to “secularism in public schools” which communities of faith are combatting by “exercising their right to educate their children in a way that allows a faith perspective to be part of the curriculum.”
Giving the particular example of the Baptist Churches in Florida, Archbishop Wenski said they have many schools and benefit to a greater degree from the state-supported tax credit scholarship system than Catholic schools.
In fact, continued the Archbishop, “the Supreme Court case was introduced not by a Catholic parent but by a protestant.”
Concluding, Archbishop Wenski said that the ruling allows parents to choose an option in which kids can be taught “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” and not just a partial truth that a secular vision would offer.