A state court ruling that barred church-linked schools from a taxpayer-funded program that lends textbooks to students is being re-evaluated after the U.S. Supreme Court said the restriction is unconstitutional.
The new review is before the New Mexico Supreme Court, which earlier held that the state’s Instructional Materials Law was subject to the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment, which provides that no funds “appropriated, levied or collected for educational purposes, shall be used for the support of any sectarian, denominational or private school.”
Such amendments are common and date to the 19th century when states were fearful that immigrant Catholics would surge in population. The laws remain in some states.
But following them can be problematic now, since the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in the Trinity Lutheran case that states cannot arbitrarily exclude religious schools from programs for the public benefit.
Trinity Lutheran wanted to participate in a state program to make playgrounds safer, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that excluding the school was unconstitutional.
Becket, which is defending the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools, said the U.S. Supreme Court returned the case to the New Mexico Supreme Court after the Trinity decision.
“New Mexico’s low-income and minority children have a second chance at a quality education now that the New Mexico Supreme Court is reconsidering its earlier ruling against the state’s textbook lending program,” the organization said.
Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, pointed out that New Mexico has been lending textbooks to disadvantaged students for more than a century.
“It makes no sense to punish kids for choosing to attend religiously affiliated schools, especially in lower-income communities,” he said.
“From kicking Catholic immigrants out of polite society to kicking children out of a quality education, these provisions hurt the vulnerable and marginalized in society,” said Baxter. “It’s time to end the bigoted reign of Blaine.”
Becket said in its brief that the state court should “reconsider its December 2015 analysis and uphold the IML’s provision of textbooks for all New Mexico students, regardless of where they may choose to receive their education.”
“This corrective ruling is required by the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the New Mexico Constitution.”
The brief pointed out that at least nine different Supreme Court justices have in recent years “emphasized the invidious religious discrimination inherent in so-called Blaine Amendments – provisions that target ‘sectarian’ institutions for disfavored treatment.”
The recent ruling in Trinity affirms “laws targeting religious individuals or organizations for disfavored treatment are barred by the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses.”
The brief continued: “Such laws are equally ‘odious’ whether they discriminate among religions or against religion generally. The New Mexico Blaine Amendment does both by targeting Catholic schools specifically and all religious schools generally.”