Comment Opinion & Features

A chance to end discrimination against Catholic schools

Today Teresa Schmit and her husband, Mike, have their hands full with their eight children, thanks in part to the Catholic schools in Great Falls, Montana, which have helped to make their family’s life – and their kids’ education – manageable and successful.

Back when the Schmits had only three children, their marriage was in turmoil. They split up. During this time, staff at their local Catholic elementary school, Our Lady of Lourdes, were fully supportive.

As Teresa recalls today, “They never said anything to create more division.”

On the contrary, the teachers took a real interest in how she, Mike and their children were coping. They “weren’t afraid to get involved”. The school recognised the importance of keeping both parents informed of the kids’ progress at school. “Our avenue back together started with the school,” says Teresa.

The Schmits are now a strong, unified family. And their partnership with Catholic schools in Great Falls continues.

Teresa thinks others in Montana, Catholic and non-Catholic, would benefit from similar faith-based partnerships. She has joined other Montana Catholic school parents in the Catholic Association Foundation’s amicus brief to aid the Supreme Court’s review of Espinoza v Montana Dept of Revenue. They are sharing their positive Catholic school experiences and support the state’s tax credit scholarship programme for children attending private religious schools. But the vestiges of Montana’s anti-Catholic past interfere with the programme’s aim of offering parents, the primary educators of their children, more education options.

The K-8 set-up of Our Lady of Lourdes allows many of the Schmit children to study at the same school. They are not spread out at grade and middle schools. Beyond easing the logistical challenges, having more of the siblings at the same school has helped the youngest of the Schmit family. This past school year, for example, Teresa’s sixth-grader Madeleine was able to spend the day with her brother Matthew, a kindergartner, when he was too anxious to participate in class. Teresa and Mike were both at work and could not pick up their son. “It was really awesome,” Teresa recalls, “that the school allowed Maddy to be there for her brother.”

Teresa, a licensed clinical social worker, has a private counselling practice. Mike works at a civil engineering firm. Their combined salaries, however, do not cover the costs of tuition. They depend on scholarships and tuition assistance. Teresa does not know what they would do without the help. She says, however, that additional scholarships – of the sort at issue in Espinoza – would make it possible for her to work fewer hours and “spend more time at the kids’ schools”.

Such scholarships would also make it possible for other Montana families to take advantage of the educational opportunities that the state’s Catholic schools offer.

A provision in Montana’s constitution, however, forbids the use of state money for “any sectarian purpose or to aid a church, school, academy … controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination”. Known as a “state Blaine Amendment”, this provision codified at the state-level what House Speaker James G Blaine unsuccessfully proposed in the late 1800s as an amendment of the US Constitution’s First Amendment. The purpose of these laws was originally to prevent state funds from benefiting Catholic schools. These laws now are used to exclude all religious institutions from competing on equal footing for public benefits. Needy kids bear the brunt of such discrimination.

After Montana lawmakers passed the tax credit scholarship programme law, the state’s department of taxation concluded that none of the programme’s scholarships could go to kids attending religious schools because of the state’s Blaine Amendment. Kendra Espinoza and two other Montana moms with kids at Christian schools objected and filed a lawsuit in state court. Last December, the Montana Supreme Court agreed with the tax department and, astonishingly, invalidated the entire programme.

In doing so, Montana’s Supreme Court failed even to acknowledge the US Constitution and a recent US Supreme Court decision reviewing Missouri’s state’s Blaine Amendment. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc v Comer, the nation’s high court held that Missouri had violated the First Amendment in prohibiting (under its Blaine Amendment) a church-run preschool from receiving a state grant to resurface its outdoor playground. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts stated that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution.”

Ms Espinoza and the other Montana moms – with the help of parents in the Catholic Association’s friend of the court brief – believe that their constitutional rights of free exercise and equal protection under the law are being violated. The Supreme Court now has the chance to put an end to the state Blaine Amendments once and for all and help secure a brighter future for children and families like Teresa Schmit’s across the country.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is legal adviser for the Catholic Association Foundation