By Christine Cooke

An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer may have big implications for school choice. The case deals with one of the biggest obstacles to school choice efforts – the Blaine Amendment.

Blaine Amendments – stemming from anti-Catholic bigotry in the late 1800s – are constitutional provisions found in 38 states, including Utah, that prohibit public funding from going to religious institutions.

This means that when public funds flow to religious private schools through school choice options, opponents argue that it violates their state constitution’s Blaine Amendment.

In 2002, the Supreme Court held that vouchers – an allotment of state money for private school tuition – are constitutional when parents have the choice to select from both religious and nonreligious options. Thus, states are constitutionally permitted to include religious schools in school choice programs like vouchers or education savings accounts. The question in this case is whether states are prohibited, when providing public services and taxpayer-funded grants, from discriminating against religious schools.

In 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church applied for state grant to fix its pre-school’s playground equipment, currently in a condition that increases risk of injury if students fall. Missouri denied the grant application, saying it was barred from giving the preschool any funds simply because it is a religious institution. The case now before the Supreme Court asks whether a state’s rejection of a religious institution from receiving secular and neutral state aid violates the First Amendment. If the court rules for Trinity Lutheran Church, vouchers and other school choice policies will be bolstered. The larger effect will be that these policies will likely spread across the nation.

While the Supreme Court could decide to dismiss the case, most anticipate the court deciding the case on its merits in June. Stay tuned for the big decision on religious liberty and school choice.

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Christine Cooke works as a policy analyst for Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress. Christine has a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in English Teaching and graduated from Arizona State University with a law degree. Prior to joining Sutherland Institute, Christine was an English teacher at a public junior high school and a residential treatment center. As a student attorney in the Arizona State University Juvenile Advocacy Clinic, Christine represented clients in juvenile law proceedings and taught community legal education to high school students. She worked in legal and policy research with the legal counsel for the Arizona Office of the Governor, legal counsel for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the Goldwater Institute, and The Heritage Foundation. Christine has made appearances on Fox-13 News and KSL’s Sunday Edition and is regularly featured in regional publications and radio shows. She currently sits on a state committee that advises the Utah State Board of Education on specific education issues. When in her home state of Arizona, she loves to spend time with her family. She also loves music, hiking, and making cookies.

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