A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (regarding the separation of Church and State) is potentially the most impactful decision on local government’s funding responsibilities for  both public and private primary and secondary schools since the 1960s.

If you have not already reviewed this little noticed decision by the increasingly conservative Court, I suggest a thorough reading of the subject in a Washington Post editorial (No Less!) praising the decision in an important case which “blew a hole in the wall between Church and State.”

Especially important to religious schools is the fact that it involved a “Church Child Learning Center being denied funds to upgrade its playground surface.” Key language in the decision states “denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion.” The Court also compared the state’s denying these monies to “cutting off churches from basic public services such as police and fire protection.” Really powerful stuff!

Certainly, the door is not opened to direct funding by taxpayers to religious schools let alone churches, but, for example, issuing vouchers to parents to use for tuition to schools of their choice has already come into play by the new Education Secretary DeVos.

In the interim, the door is now clearly ajar for securing public funding of what constitutes any “generally available benefit” now being denied solely on account of religious identity. “Generally available benefits,” especially those mandated in public schools for a spectrum special needs and disadvantaged students, must be made available on the same basis to students attending other than a district’s public schools.

One would hope church schools would search diligently for those “generally available benefits” which now can or even must be funded by local and state governments where required. Safety and health programs are the “low hanging fruit.” School security, fire safety and related systems are expensive and mandated at all schools to protect students within a town’s school district. Free lunches for eligible students and school nurses are “generally available” services. 

Given a continuing, increasing spate of religious school closings due to declining enrollments and large operating deficits, pursuit of these funds should now be aggressively initiated by all educational institutions potentially eligible.

– John L. Clearwater, Princeton

 

Editor’s Note:  Under the auspices of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, representatives from each arch/diocese in New Jersey has long conducted a robust advocacy campaign to ensure that state funding is made available to non-public school families for a number of basic services and resources. Among them are bus transporation, nursing services, technology initiatives and security needs.  To learn more about these efforts, go to njcatholic.org/budget-and-policy-issues.