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EDITORIAL: Supreme Court ruling may free Colorado kids

By: The Gazette editorial board
June 27, 2017 Updated: June 27, 2017 at 11:26 am
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FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2016 file photo, the empty playground at Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo. The Supreme Court has ruled that churches have the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for new playground surfaces and other non-religious needs. The justices on Monday, June 26, 2017, ruled 7-2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri. The church sought a grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground, but was denied any money even though its application was ranked fifth out of 44 submissions (Annaliese Nurnberg/Missourian via AP, File)

A ruling Monday by the Supreme Court of the United States could unravel Colorado's war on low-income families trying to exercise school choice and religious freedom.

The decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, out of Missouri, serves a blow to the racist Blaine Amendments. The Ku Klux Klan advocated state Blaine laws to deprive state aid to parochial church schools established to serve large waves of immigrants.

The laws prevent state money from funding any institution with a nexus to religion, despite First Amendment prohibition of religion-based discrimination and a 2002 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States that says state vouchers can pay tuition at religious schools.

The teachers union used Colorado's Blaine Amendments to obstruct the Douglas County School District's Choice Scholarship Program, which included accredited religious schools. Opponents of the scholarships prevailed at the Colorado Supreme Court.

The school district appealed to the federal Supreme Court in 2015. The court sat on the case, making no decision to hear or decline it, pending Monday's decision in the Trinity Lutheran case.

"Given today's ruling, we will prevail," said attorney Michael Bindas, of the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, who appealed the Douglas County case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Missouri state authorities said Trinity Lutheran School, of Columbia, could not participate in a state program that recycled used tires into soft playground surfaces. Children were deprived equal access to a state safety program expressly because their parents enrolled them in a religious school. Yes, Blaine laws are mean.

Monday, the court said no way.

In a 7-2 decision, justices found Missouri's exclusion of the school "violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying the church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status. This court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion. ..."

It is precisely what Gazette editorials have argued, regarding Trinity Lutheran and Douglas County schools. We have no crystal ball or glitzy legal credentials but can read the First Amendment. It says:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ..."

That means government should not use religion to favor or disfavor groups or individuals. In matters of religion, government must remain neutral. If government seeks to improve playground safety, it should have no concern for the religious beliefs of children who might benefit.

Because Blaine Amendments segregate religious institutions from public programs, they violate the First Amendment's guarantee of religious neutrality and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

The Trinity Lutheran ruling bodes well for the future of sectarian vouchers in Colorado.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, known for his circuit court decisions to defend religious liberty, voted with the majority and wrote a concurring opinion that argues for broad application of the ruling.

"The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise - whether on the playground or anywhere else," wrote Gorsuch, a Colorado native.

Bindas celebrated Monday, anticipating the Supreme Court would announce this week an agreement to hear the Colorado case or remand it to the Colorado Supreme Court for reconsideration. Either way, he believes the state or federal court will liberate the scholarship program in 2018.

"If either court applies the reasoning and principles expressed in Monday's ruling, we believe the arguments advanced by school choice opponents will be ruled unconstitutional," Bindas said. "The principles stated in the Trinity Lutheran case make perfectly clear that government has to remain neutral on religion when administering public benefits programs."

We hope he is right. Blaine laws codify discrimination against kids. They put low-income students at a disadvantage to children whose parents can afford school choice without state-based anti-religion bigotry.

Our country long ago ended Jim Crow laws and race-based school segregation. It is far past time to take down the KKK's Blaine and put an end to state-sanctioned affronts to freedom of religion, school choice and equal protection of the laws.

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