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Supreme Court Hears Landmark Case Regarding Scholarships for Religious Schools

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  • The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a potential landmark case that could allow religious schools to receive publicly-funded scholarships, even if a state’s constitution says they can’t.
  • The case involves a Montana program that was ended after the state realized it was unintentionally being used to aid religious schools using taxpayer money.
  • Opponents argue that the provision, which prohibits public funds from going to religious organizations, is rooted in religious discrimination.

Montana Sparks Lawsuit After Ending Scholarship Program

The Supreme Court of the United States began hearing Wednesday what could potentially be a landmark case concerning the separation of church and state for schools.

Specifically, the Court is considering a case out of Montana that could allow religious schools to receive publicly-funded scholarships, even if a state’s constitution prohibits such a move.

The situation that now sits upon SCOTUS’s doorstep began in 2015 when the Montana state legislature created a tax-credit program for people wanting to donate to a scholarship fund. 

That program allowed people to donate dollar-for-dollar tax credits up to $150.

An organization named Big Sky then capitalized on the program and created a fund to help parents wanting to send their children to private schools; however, there was a catch: 12 of the 13 schools that Big Sky sent money to were religious. In fact, about 70% of private schools in the state are religious schools.

Those donations directly conflict with Montana’s state constitution, which says the state cannot set aside public money 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.”

Such a law is known as a “no-aid” provision. 

Montana later decided to cut the program before eventually being sued on the basis of religious discrimination. One attorney argued that the only reason Montana shut down the program was because it included religious schools. That attorney also argued that the U.S. Constitution mandates equal protection under the law. In other words, Montana must apply the tax-credit program equally between private schools, both religious and nonreligious. 

“Once you have these programs, you have to treat families going to religious schools equal to families going to nonreligious schools,” that attorney, Erica Smith, told NPR.

The case’s lead plaintiff—Kendra Espinoza— had also been vocal about her need for such a program. 

In an interview with The Washington Post, Espinoza said not only did she have to pick up extra jobs but she also “pretty much sold everything in my house that wasn’t tied down” just to afford to send her two daughters to a religious private school. In addition to that, her two daughters took on jobs mowing lawns and cleaning offices to raise money.

Espinoza’s accounts are a far cry from the common stereotype that only rich people send their children to private schools, with Espinoza even directly saying that her family needs assistance to be able to afford private school.

“Baby” Blaine Amendments

While Montana didn’t introduce its tax-credit program until 2015, Espinoza’s case is also rooted in law that dates back to the 1800s. 

In 1875, a politician by the name James G. Blaine introduced a similar “no-aid” amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That ended up failing, but different versions of it were adopted in most states, with Montana passing theirs in 1889.

Most historians have referred to the original proposed amendment as the “Blaine Amendment,” with the later ones being dubbed “baby” Blaine Amendments. Historians also agree that such amendments were only adopted in a bigoted retaliation to the mass immigration of Catholics into the U.S.

Thus, since the law was borne of bigotry against Catholics, Espinoza and her lawyers argued that it violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against religion.

On the other hand, the state of Montana disputed the discrimination claim, pointing out that its “no-aid” provision was revised and rewritten in 1972

The state even had all but one of the surviving delegates at that 1972 convention submit a brief discussing how the revised Constitution was debated. According to NPR, one delegate even says that a number of the delegates were also ministers, with many of them speaking “very ardently in favor of public funds not going to religious education.”

That delegate, Mae Nan Ellingson, also argued that the state passed the “no-aid” provision to “protect religious liberty,” saying the state feared that if religious organizations were included, someone in the future might try to attach conditions to the aid. 

The case eventually made its way to the Montana Supreme Court, where the Court ruled the state had not violated religious protections granted by the U.S. Constitution. 

U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up the Case

That decision, however, was then appealed to the SCOTUS, which began hearing arguments Wednesday. 

In its brief, Montana continued to defend its no-aid provision, saying, “The No-Aid Clause does not prohibit any religious practice. Nor does it authorize any discriminatory benefits program. It simply says that Montana will not financially aid religious schools.”

On Espinoza’s side, the Trump Administration and Education Secretary Betsy Devos have backed her. The move is not an unexpected one for Devos, who attended private school herself and later sent her kids to private schools. Devos is also a heavy advocate of “faith-based education.”

With this case now reaching SCOTUS, any decision could have far-reaching effects. Including Montana, 38 states have no-aid provisions. 

If Montana wins, its tax-credit program would remain shut down. It would then continue to be able to keep public money away from religious schools, but religious schools would still be able to receive federal funds.

However, if the state loses, religious schools across the country—regardless of previous state law—might be able to access scholarship funds paid for by taxes. 

Currently, the latter decision appears to be the more likely outcome. In recent years, the Court has become more conservative on church vs. state issues. In 2017, it decided that Missouri couldn’t ban a church school for applying for a state grant that fixes up playgrounds. Since then, the court has only grown more conservative, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the bench.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (Reuters)

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Court Decisions Force Wisconsin to Hold Primary During Pandemic. Here’s What You Need to Know

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  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state must hold its primary Tuesday, overruling Gov. Tony Evers executive order to postpone the election.
  • Separately, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a lower ruling that would have let absentee ballots be cast until April 13.
  • Both decisions were the results of legal challenges from the GOP-led legislature, which refused to delay the election or allow for full mail-in voting and also objected to extending absentee voting.
  • Wisconsin is now the only state to hold a major in-person election since shelter-in-place orders have been implemented all over the country.

Wisconsin’s Legal Battle

After a dizzying legal back-and-forth, Wisconsin held its primary election Tuesday despite warnings from public health experts about gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Wisconsin is now the only state to hold a major in-person election since it and the majority of other states issued shelter in place orders. More than a dozen other states postponed their primaries in response to the outbreak, making Wisconsin the only state to hold in-person elections in April.

That, however, is not for lack of trying on the part of Gov. Tony Evers. On Monday, Evers issued an executive order delaying the election until June 9.

According to reports, Evers held off on the move until the last minute because many local offices on the ballot start their terms in April, and Wisconsin state law says only the state legislature can change the date of the election. 

But the GOP-led legislature refused to change the date or allow the election to go forward with all mail-in ballots. When Evers went ahead with the executive order, the state legislature filed a legal challenge, saying the governor was exceeding his constitutional authority.

Shortly after, a conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court shot down the order, ruling that the election had to go forward on Tuesday.

In a separate ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal court decision that would have extended absentee voting until April 13. The lower court’s decision had also received a legal challenge from the state’s Republicans.

In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that extending the deadline for absentee voting “fundamentally alters the nature of the election.”

All four of the liberal justices dissented. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a scathing review of the decision.

“The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic,” she wrote.

“With the majority’s stay in place, that will not be possible. Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own.”

Poll Workers and Condensed Locations

Similarly, there were also many concerns about the safety of poll workers and election officials as well.

While officials said they were taking precautions to protect their health at voting precincts, many also told reporters that all the legal back-and-forth created confusion and logistical problems.

That was made worse by the fact that thousands of poll workers said they will not work, with some reportedly saying they were being asked to risk their health.

According to the New York Times, “roughly 2,400 National Guardsmen were being trained as poll workers as late as Monday, it still won’t come close to the more than 7,000 who have already said they cannot work.”

The lack of poll workers has also prompted officials to shut down hundreds of polling stations. One of the most dramatic examples was in Milwaulkee, where the number of polling locations was cut from 180 to just five, despite the fact that election workers expected more than 50,000 voters to turn out.

The move forced those who did decide to vote in-person to wait in long lines and further risk exposing themselves to more people.

 Response

Many people took to Twitter to share videos of lines wrapping around buildings or spanning whole blocks.

A number of users argued that holding in-person voting during a pandemic was undemocratic or amounted to voter suppression.

Some directly accused the state’s Republicans of endangering their people, while others also condemned the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Many of those points were echoed by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“It’s outrageous that the Republican legislative leaders and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court in Wisconsin are willing to risk the health and safety of many thousands of Wisconsin voters tomorrow for their own political gain,” he wrote on Twitter.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has not said much since the decision, but on Thursday, he took a different stance.

“There’s a lot of things that can be done; that’s for the Wisconsin courts and folks to decide,” he told reporters, adding that both in-person and mail-in voting could be done safely.

However, there were some who applauded the decision to keep in-person voting. 

Others appeared to downplay the move, like one Republican county chair, Jim Miller of Sawyer County, who said the voting process would be like picking up food under Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order.

“If you can go out and get fast food, you can go vote curbside,” he said. “It’s the same procedure.”

President Donald Trump, for his part, also chimed in Tuesday morning, encouraging people to go out and vote for a conservative state Supreme Court justice who supported the Second Amendment.

What’s Next?

Currently, it is unclear how voter turnout has been impacted. As for the election results, those are not to be expected for several more days.

The federal judge that initially allowed absentee ballots to be sent until April 13 also ruled that election officials had to hold results until that same date. According to reports, the U.S. Supreme Court decision does not seem to have changed that.

That said, Biden has been pulling out a strong lead over Sanders in Wisconsin’s polls for a while now. FiveThirtyEight predicts that the former vice president has a 90% chance of winning the most votes.

Wisconsin will likely be crucial to the future of Sanders’ campaign. In 2016, Sanders won the state, which has 84 pledged delegates up for grabs.

Wisconsin is also a key battleground state. Trump won the state in the general election in 2016, turning it red for the first time in 30 years.

Besides being an important state in both the primary and general, Wisconsin also has much bigger implications for both parties.

“The state stands as a first test case in what both national parties expect to be a protracted fight over changing voter rules to contend with the pandemic — potentially the biggest voting rights battle since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” the Times explains.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The New York Times) (Fox News)

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FLOTUS Calls for Public to Take Cloth Mask Advice Seriously, President Chooses to Go Without

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  • The CDC has recommended that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. 
  • The advice is aimed at stopping presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers from spreading the coronavirus to others around them.
  • Officials have released DIY instructions for homemade masks that can be made at a low cost and can be washed.
  • President Trump stressed that the guidance is voluntary and said he will not wear a mask himself, though the First Lady has called for people to take the advice seriously. 

New Recommendation 

President Donald Trump announced Friday that the Center for Disease Control is advising everyone in the U.S. to wear face coverings in public settings to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, though he himself has chosen not to follow the voluntary measure.

“CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” the CDC’s memo reads.

Previous guidelines only advised healthcare workers to wear masks, as well as those who are sick or caring for a sick person who is unable to wear one. However, the CDC’s new recommendation is aimed at stopping presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus to others around them.

To avoid taking critical supplies like N95 respirators and surgical masks from healthcare workers, the CDC is advising that people use cloth face coverings which can be washed and made from household items at a low cost.

Wearing face coverings is a voluntary decision and the CDC noted that they should not be placed on “children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

However, it’s important to note that wearing a face-covering is just an additional public health measure that can be taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It is not a substitute for social distancing. 

Homemade Masks 

Since that announcement, swarms of DIY instructions and videos have surfaced showing different ways to make masks at home. The CDC themselves posted both sew and no-sew instructions using items like cotton T-shirts, or a bandana and coffee filter. 

They even released a 45-second video with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams quickly putting one together with rubber bands and folded fabric.

Their guidance says to use a covering that fits snug, can be secured with ties or ear loops, includes multiple layers of fabric, and allows for breathing without restriction. These masks don’t offer full protection, but some is better than none and they can be especially helpful when paired with other tactics like hand washing, not touching your face, and social distancing.   

There is little data so far on cloth or homemade masks in general, but the material most often recommended by experts is a tight weave or quilted cotton. 

Experts also warn that you should wash or dispose of your masks after each use. Don’t fidget with your masks when wearing then, be sure to remove them by the ear straps to avoid touching whatever may have landed on the front surface, and wash your hands thoroughly before and after. 

Trump Says He Won’t Wear a Mask 

When making the announcement, President Trump said that he himself was choosing not to wear a mask. 

“With the masks, it is going to be really a voluntary thing,” he said at the daily coronavirus briefing. “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it. But some people may want to do it, and that’s OK. It may be good. Probably will — they’re making a recommendation. It’s only a recommendation, it’s voluntary.”

“I’m feeling good. I just don’t want to be doing it…I think that wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know,” he added. “Somehow, I don’t see it for myself. I just dont, maybe I’ll change my mind.”

That was, of course, met with some backlash, but it highlighted the battle between the White House and CDC over the measures. For weeks, the White House coronavirus task force has debated whether or not to issue such a recommendation. 

Senior officials pushed to limit the guidance to high-transmission areas only, fearing that the call for the wide use of masks could cause unnecessary panic and provide a false sense of security. They also argued that even with the call for cloth coverings, the guidance might prompt people to try and get their hands on medical masks that are already in high demand at hospitals. 

But federal health officials and experts from the CDC said the guidance only makes sense if it is broadly applied. They argued that it is an additional way to slow the spread and prevent communities with low transmission from quickly becoming an area with a high volume of cases. 

FLOTUS Supports Cloth Masks

Despite the President’s remarks, First Lady Melania Trump has stressed the importance of wearing masks. On Friday, she tweeted, “As the weekend approaches I ask that everyone take social distancing & wearing a mask/face covering seriously. #COVID19 is a virus that can spread to anyone – we can stop this together.”

She made a similar call on Sunday, this time sharing the CDC’s information.

President Trump was asked about her tweets during a coronavirus task force press briefing on Sunday, replying, “It’s good, no, she feels that way.”

“Would you like me to wear one right now in answering your question?” He asked jokingly. “That would be a little awkward I guess. But no, I mean, I again, I would wear one if I thought it was important.” 

“She likes the idea of wearing it, yeah she does,” Trump continued. “A lot of people do. Again, it’s a recommendation, and I understand that recommendation, and I’m ok with it.”

Cities like New York and Los Angeles had already called for face coverings in public, but some areas are now strictly enforcing the measures. 

In Laredo, Texas, the city’s emergency mandate calls for anyone over the age of 5 to wear “some form of covering over their nose and mouth” when using public transportation, taxis, rideshares, pumping gas or when inside a building open to the public.  The penalty for violating the order is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $1,000.

Other cities might soon start enforcing the measures as well, as numbers of cases and deaths continue to climb across the country. 

See what others are saying:(NPR) (CNET) (Vox

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Jared Kushner Says Federal Medical Supply Stockpile Isn’t for States to Use

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  • Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, said that the federal stockpile was not intended to be used by states at a coronavirus briefing Thursday night. 
  • Many were quick to point out that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services described the stockpile as one to be allocated to states when in need, contradicting Kushner’s remarks. 
  • The language describing the stockpile was later changed on the Health Department’s site, deemphasizing the federal government’s role in giving resources to states. 
  • Kushner was criticized by many who also slammed his lack of government experience.

Kushner’s Remarks

Jared Kushner drew swift criticism after he took the stage at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing on Thursday night and said the federal stockpile wasn’t meant for distribution among states. 

It was the first time President Donald Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law spoke at one of these briefings. Vice President Mike Pence introduced him as “someone that the white house coronavirus task force directed to work with FEMA on supply chain issues.”

“We’re grateful for his efforts and his leadership,” Pence said.

When Kushner first stepped up to the podium, he praised the efforts that his team has been making to track down supplies. The 39-year-old kept repeatedly emphasizing the importance of data — the “real data from the cities, from the states, [so] that we can make real time allocation decisions based on the data.” 

Kushner seemed to suggest that local officials should be more diligent about finding resources in their own states before turning to the federal government for help. 

“The notion of the federal stockpile is it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” Kushner said. “It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpile that they then use.”

He then addressed the criticism that the federal government has received from state officials about not providing enough resources, a criticism Trump has been defensive about. 

“So I would just encourage you, when you have governors saying that the federal government hasn’t given them what you need, I would just urge you to ask them, ‘well have you looked within your state to make sure that you haven’t been able to find the resources?’” Kushner said.

Stockpile Description Changed

Many were quick to note that Kushner’s comments did not line up with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ description of the national stockpile.

“Strategic National Stockpile is the nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out,” the website read. 

“When state, local, tribal, and territorial responders request federal assistance to support their response efforts, the stockpile ensures that the right medicines and supplies get to those who need them most during an emergency,” it initially said.

But following Kushner’s remarks on Thursday evening, the language on the site was changed to downplay the federal government’s role in giving resources to states. 

“The Strategic National Stockpile’s role is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies,” the description now says, noting that many states have their own stockpiles as well. 

“The supplies, medicines, and devices for life-saving care contained in the stockpile can be used as a short-term stopgap buffer when the immediate supply of adequate amounts of these materials may not be immediately available,” it says.

Backlash for Kushner

Many were swift to slam Kushner for his comments about the stockpile not being intended for states’ use. 

“Who the hell does the nepotist think ‘our’ refers to? It is for the American people . . . as the federal government’s OWN strategic national stockpile website assures us!” Former White House ethics director Walter Shaub wrote on Twitter.

“Dear Jared Kushner of the @realDonaldTrump Administration: We are the UNITED STATES of America. The federal stockpile is reserved for all Americans living in our states, not just federal employees. Get it?” Rep. Ted Lieu said.

Others pointed to Kushner’s background as a real estate developer and newspaper publisher, with no government experience prior to his father-in-law’s 2016 election.  

“Kushner has succeeded at exactly three things in his life,” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote in an op-ed piece. “He was born to the right parents, married well and learned how to influence his father-in-law. Most of his other endeavors — his biggest real estate deal, his foray into newspaper ownership, his attempt to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians — have been failures.” 

More criticisms of Kushner’s lack of qualifications were thrown across social media. 

“Can anyone tell me what Jared Kushner’s qualifications are besides being a white man?” one person asked.

Need for Medical Supplies Continues

Despite what Kushner says, leaders are still expressing their desperation for adequate medical supplies as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc across the country. 

On Thursday night, Cory Gardner of Colorado, a Republican senator, was sending a letter saying he expected the federal stockpile to be available for states to use. 

“The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA) … includes clear expectations to ensure that the Department of Health and Human Services’ SNS procurement and maintenance decisions support the federal government’s ability to support states and localities in a public health emergency,” Gardner wrote.

“The SNS is a critical resource for states facing grave public health emergencies, and we must take every step to make sure that there is a robust supply of working medical supplies and equipment on hand,” Gardner added.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio requested more medical personnel and supplies in an interview with CNN on Friday morning. 

“We can only get to Monday or Tuesday at this point. We don’t know after that. How on earth is this happening in the greatest nation in the world?” de Blasio said.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (USA Today)

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