BOISE — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying a school run by a church is eligible for a state grant to fix its playground could have ramifications for Idaho and the three dozen other states with provisions in their constitutions banning tax dollars from going to religious schools.
The nation’s highest court ruled 7-2 on Monday in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. The state had rejected Trinity’s application because the Missouri constitution bans spending tax money on religious schools. Idaho’s constitution has a similar provision banning the use of public money “in aid of any church or sectarian or religious society, or for any sectarian or religious purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church, sectarian or religious denomination whatsoever.”
Named “Blaine amendments” after James Blaine, the Republican politician who gave Blaine County its name, they trace their origins to the identity politics of 19th-century America and tensions between the Protestant population and Catholic immigrants. At the time, public schools in many places had a Protestant cast and used the King James Bible in class, leading some Catholics to push for funding for their own institutions. Blaine’s effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to preclude this failed but the idea succeeded in many states.
In today’s world, such amendments are often supported by groups that advocate for public school funding or the separation of church and state, while conservatives who favor more support for private schools sometimes want them changed. Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, introduced a constitutional amendment during the 2016 legislative session to let students at religious schools get public scholarships or grants. This could open the door to a school voucher program, which the state constitution bans today if it involves tax money going to religious schools. The proposal never got a full hearing.
While some states with Blaine amendments allow funding to religious schools for limited purposes, Idaho’s bans them from getting any tax money.
“This is one of the tightest Blaine Amendment states in the country,” said Terry Ryan, CEO of the Boise-based pro-school choice group Bluum.
Ryan supports changing the law. Students going to religious colleges already get public scholarships, he said, which was one of Nate’s arguments for his amendment.
“It’s confusing to me why we have such a strong belief that it’s a problem when it comes to K-12 education,” Ryan said. “I certainly think this is a debate worth having, and let the merits be heard on both sides. I think that would be healthy for the state.”
The state Department of Education doesn’t plan to do anything differently, spokesman Jeff Church said.
“No private religious schools receive state funds,” Church said in an email. “Article 9 section 5 of the Idaho constitution addresses this in detail, and the department is required to adhere to the constitution.”
The judges differed on how their ruling should be interpreted. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a footnote saying the case “involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” while justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorscuh viewed it more broadly.
“The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise — whether on the playground or anywhere else,” Gorsuch wrote.
“The ruling was very narrow and it’s way too early to be in a position to extrapolate how it’s going to impact things in other states,” said Dave Harbison, spokesman for the Idaho Education Association, which opposes taxpayer funding for religious schools.
“We firmly believe that public funds should go to public schools,” Harbison said.
Idaho School Boards Association spokeswoman Jess Harrison said the group is disappointed with the ruling and “concerned that it will have ramifications in Idaho,” but pointed to Roberts’ footnote limiting its scope.
“ISBA still strongly believes that the use of public funds in regard to education should remain with public schools as currently outlined in Idaho’s constitution,” she said.
Ryan said he expects the case to lead to more litigation.
“The fact is, this opens the door for those sorts of conversations and for the opportunity for groups in states with Blaine amendments to start putting forth some legal challenges,” he said.