Archives for category: Montana

Jan Resseger writes here with her usual lucidity about the Espinoza decision, which cut another hole in Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” a long-sought goal of the radical right. To anyone who refused to vote for Hillary in 2016, this decision is yours.

Please open to read it all, along with the links.

She begins:

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court released a long awaited decision in the church-state separation case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision. NY Times Supreme Court reporter, Adam Liptak quotes Roberts’ argument: “‘A state need not subsidize private education…. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.’ In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority opinion ‘weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.’”

Although historically, religious liberty and church-state cases have been decided on the basis of the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” this week’s decision rests on what’s known as the “free exercise clause.”

In a particularly lucid explication of this week’s decision, VOX’s Ian Millhiser explains: “The First Amendment places two limits on the government’s interaction with religion: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’… Thus, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause limits the government’s ability to advance religion, and the free Exercise Clause limits the government’s ability to target people of faith. The government is simultaneously obligated both to stay out of religious matters and to protect the rights of the faithful—a dual obligation that courts have often found difficult to reconcile.”

Millhiser continues, explaining that Roberts’ decision rests on a 2017 precedent: “As Roberts argues in his opinion, the result in Espinoza flows from the Court’s previous decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer… which held that the state of Missouri could not exclude religious organizations from a state program that offered ‘grants to help public and private schools, nonprofit daycare centers, and other nonprofit entities purchase rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.’… According to Roberts, Trinity Lutheran reached the ‘unremarkable conclusion that disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit solely because of their religious character imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny.’ Just as the Missouri recycled tires program ‘discriminated against the Church simply because of what it is—a church,’ the Montana constitution ‘bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools.’”

The current Espinoza case was brought by several mothers whose children are enrolled in the Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana. Plaintiffs were represented by—and clearly recruited by—the Institute for Justice, a far-right, libertarian law firm which, for years, has set out to challenge First Amendment protection of the separation of religion from government. In this case, the Montana Supreme Court had already partially shut down the tuition tax credit program at issue in the case. Writing for Education Dive, Linda Jacobson reports that the program will now continue: “In Montana, the ruling means the scholarship program continues because the Montana Supreme Court granted a partial stay, allowing existing scholarship funds to be distributed while awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.”

The Espinoza decision will affect the 37 states with what are known as Blaine Amendments in their state constitutions. Jacobson explains: “The statutes are named for James G. Blaine, a U.S. representative who tried, following the Civil War, to get a bill through Congress that would have denied any aid to sectarian schools. His legislation failed, but efforts to write such language into state constitutions were clearly more successful.”

Why are supporters of public education so concerned about the implications of this case? In the first place, voucher programs drain needed tax dollars out of public schools. In Ohio, for example, a state that already permits public funds to flow to religious schools, EdChoice vouchers extract $4,650 for each elementary and middle school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher—right from the local public school district’s budget.

Another serious problem with vouchers is that the law protects students’ rights in public schools, but the same laws do not protect students enrolled in private schools. Writing for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern worries that now, after Espinoza: “Taxpayers in most of the country will soon start finding overtly religious education—including the indoctrination of children into a faith that might clash with their own conscience. For example, multiple schools that participate in Montana’s scholarship program inculcate students with a virulent anti-LGBTQ ideology that compares homosexuality to bestiality and incest. But many Montanans of faith believe LGBTQ people deserve respect and equality because they are made in the image of God. What does the Supreme Court have to say to Montanans who do not wish to fund religious indoctrination that contradicts their own beliefs?”

Our reader Laura Chapman read the Supreme Court decision in the Espinoza case, both the majority decision and the dissents. The majority decision said that if a state offers a scholarship program for private schools, it must include religious schools. The dissenters, Chapman noted, pointed out that the Montana Supreme Court had already invalidated the private scholarship program. So the case was already moot because Montana no longer has a scholarship program for private schools! The Espinoza family will not get $150 (the amount that used to be paid to families that sought help in paying private school tuition) because Montana no longer offers scholarships to private schools, and thus will not be affected by today’s decision!

She wrote:

I downloaded the text of ESPINOZA ET AL. v. MONTANA DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE ET AL and read the dissents. Here are a few gems, all noting that the scholarship in question had already been made invalid by Montana’s Supreme Court !!

BREYER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KAGAN, J., joined as to Part I.

I shall assume, for purposes of this opinion, that petitioners’ free exercise claim survived the Montana Supreme Court’s wholesale invalidation of the tax credit program. (This is a feature in all of the dissents. Essentially, the dissenters claim there is no case because the program was made vaporware by the Montana Supreme Court.)
Breyer then begins an extended discussion of “entanglements” of the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause: and concludes that “The majority’s approach and its conclusion in this case, I fear, risk the kind of entanglement and conflict that the Religion Clauses are intended to prevent. I consequently dissent.

Well, that is the summary, but it is followed by at least 6000 words, as if prepared to show his colleagues that he had considered a lot of precedents that had no direct bearing on the case, these dating back to Madison and Jefferson’s Wall of Separation in Antebellum Virginia, along with hypothetical questions about state funding for charter schools (with a 2003 citation).

GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KAGAN, J., joined.

Recall that the Montana court remedied the state constitutional violation by striking the scholarship program in its entirety. Under that decree, secular and sectarian schools alike are ineligible for benefits, so the decision cannot be said to entail differential treatment based on petitioners’ religion.

Put somewhat differently, petitioners argue that the Free Exercise Clause requires a State to treat institutions and people neutrally when doling out a benefit—and neutrally is how Montana treats them in the wake of the state court’s decision. Accordingly, the Montana Supreme Court’s decision does not place a burden on petitioners’ religious exercise. Petitioners may still send their children to a religious school. And the Montana Supreme Court’s decision does not pressure them to do otherwise.

SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

The majority holds that a Montana scholarship program unlawfully discriminated against religious schools by excluding them from a tax benefit. The threshold problem, however, is that such tax benefits no longer exist for anyone in the State. The Montana Supreme Court invalidated the program on state-law grounds, thereby foreclosing the as-applied challenge petitioners raise here.

Indeed, nothing required the state court to uphold the program or the state legislature to maintain it. The Court nevertheless reframes the case and appears to ask whether a longstanding Montana constitutional provision is facially invalid under the Free Exercise Clause, even though petitioners disavowed bringing such a claim. But by resolving a constitutional question not presented, the Court fails to heed Article III principles older than the Religion Clause it expounds.

Laura Chapman added: I am not a lawyer, but I cannot understand why this case even got on the docket of the US. Supreme Court. It was settled in the Montana Supreme Court, made invalid, struck entirely.

Sarah Vowell is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times where this article appeared. Proponents of vouchers often claim that the state prohibitions on public funding of religious schools were birthed in anti-Catholic bigotry, based on the Blaine Amendment, which was offered as a Constitutional amendment after the Civil War but failed to be adopted. Many states wrote their own “baby Blaine” amendments to assure that no public money went to religious schools–not just Catholic schools, but religious schools of any kind. The case now before the Supreme Court, Espinoza v. Montana, asserts the claim that refusal to fund religious schools is bigotry towards those schools. Sarah Vowell explains that the Montana constitution was rewritten in 1972. It included a strict prohibition against funding religious schools because the people of Montana can barely afford to pay for the public schools they have. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Espinoza, it will impoverish the public schools of Montana. That is why the suit is supported by the far-right Institute for Justice and their funders such as the Walton and DeVos families.

 

Scrutinizing the avuncular sphinx Chief Justice John Roberts throughout the impeachment trial of President Trump, I kept wondering whether he will preserve or ransack the legacy of the framers we revere — framers like the Republican Betty Babcock and the Democrat Dorothy Eck. It’s the question on all Americans’ minds: Do Mr. Roberts and his eight co-workers fully appreciate the public-spirited grandeur of the winter of 1971-72, when 100 Montanans, including housewives, ministers, a veterinarian and a beekeeper, gathered at the state capital, Helena, for the constitutional convention, affectionately nicknamed the “Con Con”?

The question haunts the current Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. This newspaper has called the dispute over whether state tax credits can apply to donations for scholarships to private religious schools “a proxy battle over school choice.” However, the back story is so clumsily specific to Montana’s small population and immense geography that the case doesn’t entirely translate to states where people outnumber cows.

The novelist Ivan Doig wrote that in the scruffy Montana of yore, “when you met up with someone apt to give you trouble from his knuckles, the automatic evaluation was ‘too much Butte in him.’” When, as the grateful graduate of a Montana public school, I was determining whether I had a duty to stick up for the Con Con framers regarding the Espinoza case, I spotted a sequence in the web address of an article about it in The Atlantic that read “montana-bigoted-laws.” At that moment this Bozeman girl had too much Butte in her. Dorothy Eck wrote no “bigoted” anti-Christian laws — she was a blatant Methodist!

Before it ended up at the Supreme Court, the Espinoza ruckus started with a $150 tax credit. Montanans will make an appellate-level stink about chump change because that’s the only available change. The tiny tax base is basically eight coal miners, a couple of ski lift operators, that family in Belgrade making organic goat cheese and Huey Lewis.

Kendra Espinoza counted on scholarships to help pay for her daughters’ tuition at Stillwater Christian, a private school in Kalispell. No wonder. At up to $8,620 per year, ninth grade is more than $1,000 higher than undergraduate tuition at the University of Montana. What we called a “band room” at Bozeman High, Stillwater considers a “conservatory.”

School choice partisans pounced when Ms. Espinoza and other private-school parents sued to overturn the State Supreme Court’s ruling that the tax credit for scholarship donations violated the “no-aid” clause for sectarian schools in the Montana Constitution. They argued that it was time to erase “antiquated” anti-Catholic laws against public funding for private religious education. The subtle former state senator Matthew Monforton denounced the law as “Jim Crow for Christians.”

It is worth pointing out that the eighth word of the ’72 Constitutionis “God.” In the first draft of the preamble, some wistful Jeffersonians tried to thank the “Spirit of the Creator” for “the quiet beauty of our state.” They were shot down in the Bill of Rights Committee because “not mentioning ‘God’ specifically would be unacceptable” and so they “voted unanimously to retain Him in the Preamble.” The framers included a priest from Great Falls, Mitt Romney’s cousin Miles, the self-proclaimed “first Roman Catholic ever elected to anything in Yellowstone County,” and enough Presbyterians to warrant their own photo op.

While the ’72 Constitution’s no-aid clause looks similar to its predecessor in the 1889 original, the update was motivated by fortifying public schools, not shunning people of faith. Rethinking education was, along with open government and the right to individual dignity, part of the Con Con’s crusade to take a stand that no one dared dream of at statehood: that Montana would be a state in a republic and not an exceedingly wide company town.

“We were known as the state that wore the copper collar, controlled by the Anaconda Company,” Ms. Eck once said. A swashbuckler for the League of Women Voters, she referred to the copper company lording over the “richest hill on earth” and thus the newspapers and politicians. “There were stories of how their lobbyists would sit in the balcony at the legislature and do thumbs up and thumbs down of how people should vote.”

The Con Con delegates, who arranged themselves not by party but alphabetically, were so preoccupied with the public interest that they agreed public funds could be spent only on public agencies. During deliberations on the no-aid clause, the pastor of Helena’s Plymouth Congregational led the charge of “preserving our public school system,” preaching, “that’s what this issue is all about. I don’t think we ought to dilute that in any way.” (Diluting that is the aim of Espinoza.)

Article X, Section 1, of the ’72 Constitution proclaims that it is the duty of the state to “develop the full educational potential of each person.” That is an expensive ideal in a desolate wasteland. Public schools are supposed to be a volume business, but tell that to the Great Plains. The state of Montana has about 60,000 fewer inhabitants than the number of students enrolled in New York City’s public school system. I have volunteered in that epic system, which is to say I have had to excuse myself from a struggling student to go cry in a bathroom, so I sympathize with an urban kid who might eye a parochial school as her best chance.

That school choice logic doesn’t apply to Montana, where the poorest schools often have the smallest class sizes. The Montana Free Press reported that out in Prairie County, “Terry High School’s sophomore class has just five students this school year.” Starting in first grade, my friend Genevieve would ride her horse Croppy to the Malmborg School near Bozeman Pass; one year she and her brother Pete were half the student body.

When USA Today asked Ms. Espinoza if she had any qualms about what her case could mean for public schools, she insisted, “They have plenty of money.”

How I wish that were true. Last year, the public school district in Kalispell announced $1.7 million in budget cuts, Great Falls recently lost almost a hundred teachers, and Billings just announced about $4 million in cuts that mean canceling fifth grade orchestra and band.

A Supreme Court decision on Espinoza is expected in June. If the justices rule against Montana’s voters, tax credits for private school scholarship donations could surge. Revenue that might revive the Billings fifth grade band program could underwrite the fifth grade band at a pricey Kalispell private school.

Kalispell is the seat of Flathead County, which between 2000 and 2015 added more than 15,000 jobs just as rural Choteau County was losing more than 300. Overturning the no-aid clause will shovel more money into the cities (where most of the private schools are) and kick Choteau while it’s down, thereby thwarting the framers’ plan to spare needy districts from taxing “their residents three or four times as much as rich districts to provide less than half as much money per student.”

The public schools the framers conjured ask the taxpayers to splurge on fairness, not privilege, to pull together, not away. That beekeeper, those clergymen and moms chartered a state in a republic where a first grader on horseback is supposed to be as big and important as the mountains. As the Supreme Court justices ponder whether to upend all that over what appears to be a $150 trifle, I’ll pass along this lesson of Montana winters: A collapsed roof starts with a single snowflake.

Sarah Vowell, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of “The Wordy Shipmates” and “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.”

Bill Phillis of the Adequacy and Equity Coalition of Ohio fears that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, to which Trump added two religious zealots, is on the verge of eliminating the separation of church and state. This would be a huge victory for Betsy DeVos, ALEC, and the anti-government crusaders of the Right. Some states—such as Ohio, Indiana, and Florida— have already decided to ignore their state constitutions, to fund religious schools with vouchers.

The irony is that vouchers are a lose-lose proposition. The public schools—attended by nearly 90% of all pupils—lose finding, lay off teachers, cut programs. The children take away a voucher worth $5,000-$7,000 and get a worse education than their public school peers.

Bill Phillis writes:

The U.S. Supreme Court is moving toward the concept of forcing states to fund private religious schools on the same basis as public schools
 
The so-called Blaine Amendments in the constitutions of 39 states prohibit the states from funding private religious schools. Pages 235 through 238 of the Ninth Edition of American Public School Law by Kern Alexander and M. David Alexander provide a succinct and thoughtful review of the background and implication of President Grant’s proposed amendment introduced by U.S. House Speaker James G. Blaine after the Civil War.
 
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been heard to say that the constitutional provisions prohibiting the states from funding private religious schools are rooted in bigotry. She may have picked up on Justice Clarence Thomas’ assertions in Mitchell v Helms that if states don’t provide funds to religious schools they are manifesting hostility toward religion. Further Thomas asserted that the state’s constitutional provisions were subtle devices to deprive Catholic schools of public money; thus a manifestation of anti-Catholic bigotry.
 
The James G. Blaine family was Catholic. A close cousin established the Holy Cross Sisters. Neither he nor President Grant demonstrated any anti-Catholic biases. They were just attempting to unify the country after the Civil War. Grant believed the key to unity was a “common school education.”
 
The Blaine Amendment which merely prohibited public funds from flowing to religious schools, passed the House but failed in the U.S. Senate. Subsequently many states adopted constitutional amendments that accomplished the intent of President Grant’s proposal.
 
These “Blaine” provisions in the state constitutions are in accord with the first sentence in the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, …” There is no contradiction between the states’ constitutional provisions and the Bill of Rights; however, of late, the U.S. Supreme Court, contrary to earlier decisions, is advancing a different constitutional philosophy in Agostini (1997), Mitchell (2000), Zelman (2002), Davey (2004), and Trinity Lutheran (2017), all of which permit Congress and states to provide public funds to religious institutions and schools.
 
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Montana case in which the high court in Montana ruled against vouchers on the basis of its constitution’s prohibitions. If the Court rules against Montana, the “Blaine” amendments in the 39 states could be rendered invalid.
 
Montana’s constitutional prohibition of public funding to religious schools and other religious institutions is among the most stringent “no-aid clauses” in the nation. Article X section 6 states:
(1)   The legislature, counties, cities, towns, school districts, and public corporations shall not make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property for any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect or denomination.
(2)   This section shall not apply to funds from federal sources provided to the state for the express purpose of distribution to non-public education.
Notwithstanding the stringent nature of Montana’s “no aid” provision, a ruling against the Montana decision would affect states that have less stringent constitutional measures.

Steve Bullock entered the Democratic primary race late, and he starts at the back of the pack.

He needs to have 130,000 individuals contributions in order to qualify for the next debate.

I am asking you to send Steve Bullock $1 to keep him on the stage and to encourage him to talk about what he has done to improve public schools in Montana.

What he has going for him is two things:

1) he is the only candidate in the stage who won re-election in a red state that went for Trump by 20 points. In other words, he knows how to connect to people as a problem-solver who listens. He proved that he can win in a red state.

2) he has a solid pro-public education record. Montana has only two charter schools and both are under the direct supervision of local school districts. They exist because the district needs them, not because an entrepreneur or a charter chain has decided to open a charter.

Steve Bullock is unabashedly pro-public education and pro-union. NPE Action examined his record and gave him high marks for his commitment to public schools.

I am not asking you to support Steve Bullock. I have not endorsed him or anyone else.

I encourage you to send him $1 so you can be counted as a contributor and help him earn a place in the next big debate.

Somehow I missed this important story when it happened last December. The Montana Supreme Court struck down a tuition tax credit program as a transparent effort to violate the state constitution’s prohibition of sending public funds to religious schools.  Other states have adopted such devious strategies to send public money to religious schools, despite their state constitution. Florida is a leader in ignoring its state constitution.

“The Montana Supreme Court delivered a win for church-state separation and public education last week when it struck down the state’s private school voucher program.

“Americans United, joined by other civil-rights organizations, had urged the court through a friend-of-the-court brief to prevent the voucher scheme – called a tuition tax credit program – from funding private, religious education. Our brief explained that the program violated the “no-aid” provision in Montana’s constitution, which protects residents’ religious freedom by ensuring taxpayer money isn’t used for religious purposes – including religious education.

“The Montana Supreme Court agreed with us: “We ultimately conclude the Tax Credit Program aids sectarian schools in violation of Article X, Section 6, and that it is unconstitutional in all of its applications,” wrote the court majority.

“Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education – that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom,” said AU president and CEO Rachel Laser. “The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”

“The state’s legislature passed the tuition tax credit program in 2015. It allows “donors” to give money to organizations that pay for students’ private school tuition, then the state gives the “donors” a full credit on their tax bills – so it’s not really a donation after all. This is essentially a voucher program because it funnels public money to private schools.”

Jeff Bryant, a wise observer of politics and education, offers solace at a time when supporters of public education fear the ascendancy of a Republican President and Congress devoted to privatization of schools.

He reviews the electoral victories for public schools.

Chief among them, of course, were the overwhelming defeat of charter school measures in Massachusetts and Georgia.

Another victory occurred in Washington State, where Bill Gates spent $500,000 into an effort to unseat Supreme Court justices who ruled that charter schools are not public schools. The Justice who wrote that decision, Barbara Madsen, was re-elected with 64% of the vote. Two other incumbents were re-elected.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock, a strong supporter of public schools, was re-elected, running against an advocate of school choice.

California voters passed measures to assure school funding.

One other piece of good news–and these days, any piece of good news is welcome–is that Maine voters narrowly agreed to raise taxes by 3% on upper-income taxpayers, to increase education funding.