The global coronavirus pandemic has imposed an unprecedented stress test on all our institutions – and US Catholic schools have been hit especially hard. More than a hundred have said that they will close by the start of the next school year because of the financial toll of the pandemic, with many more closures expected to be announced in the coming months.
America’s Catholic schools have long faced the existential threat of financial pressures brought on by a decline in teachers from religious orders and shifting student demographics. The US was home to about 11,000 Catholic schools in the 1970s, but this has rapidly fallen to just 6,000 today. With the pandemic drying up tuition fee payments, which make up 80 per cent of Catholic schools’ operating budgets, and with this year’s round of spring fundraisers cancelled, the latest test could well bring about an unprecedented landslide of closures.
“Nearly every diocese probably is facing a closure,” said the US Bishops’ Conference’s director of education, Mary Pat Donoghue. Speaking to the Catholic News Service, Donoghue said she hoped that federal aid available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) would “keep the number of closures from being worse than it is”.
In a meeting back in April, the US Catholic bishops made this exact appeal to President Donald Trump, who assured them that the CARES Act would protect Catholic education. But there remain many obstacles to Catholic schools being able to benefit from this relief.
Firstly, they have struggled to access the $13.5 billion school fund in the CARES Act, because of how the money is distributed. Part of the difficulty is that the money is mostly given to publicly-funded schools – so private Catholic schools struggle to access the funds, even though they generally charge fees a small fraction of their secular counterparts and often serve poor students in inner cities.
Second, the application for emergency loan support requires the schools to comply with civil rights laws. Significantly, this commitment includes Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex” in any education programme or activity.
In the recent Bostock case (see Christopher Altieri, page 19), the Supreme Court controversially ruled that, because Title VII civil rights law forbids discrimination “based on sex”, it is “impossible” to fire or even to not hire employees “merely for being gay or transgender”. In the Washington Post, two legal representatives for cases decided by the Bostock ruling, David Cole and Ria Tabacco Mar, said that the court’s new ruling would also apply to schools in receipt of federal funding because Title VII and IX civil rights laws both “use similar terms”.
Cole and Mar’s view coincides with Justice Samuel Alito’s dissenting opinion in the Bostock case, where he argued that the Bostock ruling would compel “a religious organisation to employ individuals whose conduct flouts the tenets of the organisation’s faith” and require institutions to accept the “presence of individuals whom they regard as members of the opposite sex” in single-sex settings, including in schools.
These restrictions have left many advocates of Catholic schools pleading for a new round of relief that comes without these strings attached. But they may be too late: since the CARES Act, the Democrat-majority House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion pandemic relief bill which actually rescinded the limited pandemic-related support for non-public schools, including Catholic schools.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this new Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act) would be “dead on arrival” when it goes up to the Senate because it does not meet Republican demands for new business liability-protection provisions. If the majority-Republican Senate does, however, eventually accept a new round of relief, it is far from clear that funding for Catholic schools will also become a red line demand.
Despite a recent Supreme Court ruling that state support for non-public education “cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious”, there remain many legal obstacles to Catholic schools receiving government support. Voices across the political spectrum still warn that federal funds for religious schools “risk violating the First Amendment to the United States Constitution”, as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has argued.
The funding problems go back a long way. The First Amendment prohibits the “establishment of religion” and was interpreted by Thomas Jefferson as “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Over the years, the Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that religious schools can only receive public funding if the funding has a secular purpose and a secular effect, and does not entangle Church and state. This has led to restrictions on financial support for Catholic schools.
In the 19th century, meanwhile, states passed “Blaine Amendments” which prohibit public funding of “sectarian schools”. That led Catholic private schools to develop: Catholics did not want to send their children to publicly-funded schools which would often have a strongly Protestant bent.
In an article for First Things, Chad C Pecknold warned that the “pandemic and the consequent economic shutdown may do what the dastardly Blaine Amendments failed to do and shut down Catholic schools.” He therefore called on Congress not to “mimic the unconstitutional and discriminatory Blaine Amendments by leaving out Catholic schools” from any forthcoming relief bill. But of course, as Pecknold himself noted, the “cross” of the restrictive Blaine amendments ultimately led to a Catholic school system in America that “provided a sound education for the poor that didn’t contradict their Catholic faith.”
In countries where the state did more to help lift the financial burden on Catholic schools, an altogether different problem has emerged. In Kenya, where the Church is currently fighting government proposals on abortion provision and sex education, the Catholic bishops have warned that their schools’ “overdependence on government funding” has led to a curriculum marred by a “neglect of faith formation”. Headteachers at Catholic schools in Wales are at loggerheads with the Welsh government over its proposals to dilute religious education, whilst former Maltese minister Tonio Borg has condemned his country’s new “equality bill” for stripping the “Catholic vision of the entire gamut of subjects” from the Catholic school curriculum.
Thomas Jefferson developed his definition of the Establishment Clause from the writings of the Baptist theologian Roger Williams, who wrote that there must be a “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” The question remains, therefore, whether the temptation of state funding will ultimately leave Catholics shut out of their own walled garden.
Thomas Caddick is a news writer for the Catholic Herald
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