- 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)
California to Ban the Sale of New Gas-Powered Cars by 2035
- California Governor Newsom (D) signed an executive order Wednesday aimed at banning sales of new gasoline vehicles by 2035.
- The ban will not prevent anyone from owning or even selling a used gas-powered vehicle.
- While many environmentalist groups praised Newsom for the order, they noted that California will need to be proactive to accomplish the goal in its current time frame. Some even criticized Newsom for not going a step further by also limiting oil and gas production.
- Despite this, Newsom announced a goal to end new fracking permits by 2024, which was later condemned by many energy companies.
- Because California has such a massive influence, many believe other states could follow its lead, causing ripple effects in the car market.
Newsom Announces Gas-Powered Car Ban for 2035
As part of an “ambitious” new goal, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) issued an executive order on Wednesday meant to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035.
“I think it’s self-evident to anybody who’s been paying any attention about [the] state of California that we’ve been suffering and struggling through simultaneous crises,” Newsom when announcing the order.
“Of all the simultaneous crises that we face as a state, and I would argue as a nation — and for that matter, from a global perspective — none is more impactful, none is more forceful than the issue of the climate crisis. And that’s exactly what we’re advancing here today is a strategy to address that crisis head-on, to be as bold as the problem is big.”
In part, Newsom’s order directs regulators to develop a plan that would require automakers to steadily sell more zero-emissions vehicles, with the state completely phasing out the sale of new gas-powered passenger vehicles in just 15 fifteen years. This order will not ban people from owning, driving, or even selling used cars that rely on gas.
Among other measures, the order sets a goal to make all medium and heavy-duty vehicles on the road zero emissions by 2045, “where feasible.”
It also directs state transportation agencies to “identify near-term actions” that would build infrastructure such as “an integrated, statewide rail and transit network” or that would “[support] bicycle, pedestrian, and micro-mobility options, particularly in low-income and disadvantaged communities in the State.”
Is This Goal Feasible?
One of the biggest challenges to this goal is its feasibility.
As experts have pointed out, increasing the production and sale of emissions-free vehicles in the state over a relatively short period of time will be a massive hurdle.
Last year, only about 8% of passenger vehicles in the state were either electric or hybrid. On top of that, California would need to increase financial incentives for electric vehicles since they tend to be pricier. It would also need to drastically expand its charging infrastructure.
Still, Newsom stressed in his Wednesday announcement that over 40% of the state’s carbon emissions come directly from transportation. In fact, transportation even outpaces the industrial, agricultural, and residential sectors combined.
It’s not impossible to think that this goal could become a reality. As Don Anair, deputy director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The New York Times: “It’s feasible, but it’s going to take California pulling all the levers at its disposal.”
California isn’t the first place to announce a phasing out of gas-powered vehicles. Fifteen other countries — including Britain, Denmark, and Norway — have all set similar goals; however, California is the first government in the United States to set such aggressive goals.
Environmentalists Express Concerns Over Oil and Gas
While many environmentalists praised the order, that also doesn’t mean they’re fully satisfied with it. Many have pointed out that California is one of the country’s largest oil and gas producers.
In recent years, energy companies in the state have used fracking to unlock new fossil-fuel reserves. Because of that, Kassie Siegel, the director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Times: “Setting a timeline to eliminate petroleum vehicles is a big step, but Newsom’s announcement provided rhetoric rather than real action on the other critical half of the climate problem — California’s dirty oil production.”
“Newsom can’t claim climate leadership while handing out permits to oil companies to drill and frack,” she added.
In his order, Newsom set a goal to end new permits for fracking by 2024. He also said he would work to help the state’s energy industry move away from its reliance on oil and gas.
Regarding why he did not issue an executive order banning fracking, he said he lacks the authority to do so on his own. Therefore, he called on the state legislature to enact such a ban.
Online Criticism and Criticism from Energy Companies
Energy companies offered even sharper words following Newson’s announcement of his fracking goals.
“Let’s be clear: Today’s announcement to curb in-state production of energy will put thousands of workers in the Central Valley, Los Angeles basin, and Central Coast on the state’s overloaded unemployment program, drive up energy costs when consumers can least afford it, and hurt California’s fight to lower global greenhouse gas emissions,” Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Association.
Many online also criticized Newsom’s goals, with one person saying, “You are going to ruin California’s economy and people will lose their jobs.”
California’s Move Could Send a Ripple Across Other States
California is the fifth-largest economy in the world, and it’s not unlikely to think that pressure on auto companies from the state could prompt other states to increase their electric vehicle usage as well.
“We’ve seen this show before, where California does something, and others jump on board,” veteran auto industry analyst Karl Brauer told The Washington Post.
“If you want to reduce asthma,” Newson said Wednesday, “if you want to mitigate the rise of sea level, if you want to mitigate a loss of ice sheets around the globe, then this is a policy for other states to follow.”
Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia already follow California’s fuel-efficiency standards; however, the Trump administration is currently challenging California’s long-standing authority to set those standards for itself.
Because of that, last year, California and nearly two dozen other states sued the Trump administration for the right to set their own standards.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)
Social Media Companies Roll Out New Features to Prepare for a Contentious Election
- As the election draws closer, most of the major social media platforms have started announcing new policy changes to prepare for Nov. 3.
- YouTube said Thursday that it was expanding its use of information panels to content regarding mail-in voting, as well as searches concerning federal candidates, voter registration, and other queries about how to vote.
- Last week, Twitter rolled out its new election information hub which it said will provide resources on mail-in ballots, how to register for the election, and information about congressional and gubernatorial candidates.
- Earlier this month, Facebook announced a series of updates, including adding labels to certain posts made by politicians who declare victory in an election before the final results are in. On Wednesday, it said it was expanding the policy to prevent politicians from running ads claiming victory before the results are finalized.
YouTube’s New Policies
Social media platforms are preparing for what is widely expected to be an inflammatory and highly contentious election cycle by announcing a series of new tools and policies.
On Thursday, YouTube rolled out several features it says are aimed at combatting election misinformation. In a blog post, the company announced that it is expanding the use of information panels under videos that address “well-established topics that are subject to misinformation, such as the moon landing or COVID-19”
Most significantly, YouTube will now start adding information panels under videos about voting by mail that will direct viewers to “authoritative information from the Bipartisan Policy Center, a bipartisan think tank.”
Additionally, the platform will also have panels pop up whenever users search for presidential or Congressional candidates, voter registration, or queries about how to vote.
Those who conduct searches regarding voter registration will see a panel that provides information on “deadlines, registration options, and an easy way to check the status of your registration.”
Searches for “how to vote” will direct users to a panel that links out to Google’s “how to vote” feature, with information concerning “ID requirements, registration and voting deadlines, and guidance for different means of voting, like in person or mail.”
In addition to YouTube, Twitter has also recently announced several new measures in preparation for the election.
Last week, the platform rolled out its new voting information hub. Much like YouTube’s plans with information panels, Twitter’s hub will include facts on mail-in ballots and how to register for the election
The centralized resource center will also provide users with as information about congressional and gubernatorial candidates and “localized news and resources” based on the state each lives in.
In a separate announcement last week, the company also said that it was working to better secure high-profile accounts in the wake of the election, including those of politicians, political organizations, large media outlets, and journalists.
Facebook, for its part, is easily facing the most pressure to put safeguards in place ahead of Nov. 3, due to the platform’s oversized role in the spread of misinformation during the 2016 election.
Earlier this month, the company announced a series of new changes. Among other things, Facebook said it would not run new political ads the week before the election and that it would add labels to certain posts, including those made by politicians who declare victory in an election before the final results are in.
On Wednesday, Facebook also said that it was expanding its policy preventing politicians from declaring an early victory in posts to also stop them from doing so in ads.
Regarding actions the platforms claims it will take after the election, during an interview with the Financial Times earlier this week, Facebook’s head of global affairs said the company will take serious steps to “restrict the circulation of content” on the platform the if presidential election descends into widespread chaos or violent unrest.
While some have applauded these changes, many have said that Facebook needs to do more leading up to the election, and not just implement its strongest policies after.
Throughout the election cycle, this broader criticism is one that has been made a lot with regards to Facebook. In addition to continually receiving backlash for not doing enough, the company has also been widely criticized by many people who believe the so-called “sweeping changes” Facebook says it has implemented are barely changes at all, or end up being widely ineffective.
Just this week, a number of recent reports have detailed major flaws and failures with systems the company has put into place.
In an article published Wednesday, CNN outlined the findings from an analysis of Facebook’s ad transparency data by the activist group Avaaz.
“Facebook allowed political advertisers to target hundreds of misleading ads about Joe Biden and the US Postal Service to swing-state voters ranging from Florida to Wisconsin in recent weeks, in an apparent failure to enforce its own platform rules less than two months before Election Day,” the outlet wrote.
The report also noted that ads being run by both Pro-Donald Trump and Pro-Democrat PACs that appeared to violate Facebook’s guidelines were left up and attracted millions of views.
Also on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that a watchdog group found serious issues with the content monitoring system Facebook has encouraged elections authorities to use to identify voting misinformation in their states.
Bloomberg went on to note that the tool “doesn’t effectively monitor most posts on the social media service, including those in private groups or from most individual users,” or Instagram accounts with less than 75,000 followers.
Rep. Gaetz Calls for Investigation After Bloomberg Pays Florida Felons’ Debts To Clear Them for Voting
- Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised $16 million to pay outstanding fees for 32,000 felons in Florida, making them eligible to vote in November.
- The move comes about a week after an appeals court upheld a law that requires felons to pay all outstanding fees before they can vote, effectively preventing hundreds of thousands of people from casting ballots in the crucial swing state.
- That court ruling follows years of legal battles over a ballot measure passed overwhelmingly by Florida voters in 2018 which allowed most felons to vote after they completed their parole and probation periods.
- Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz claimed Bloomberg’s actions were illegal, saying they are considered providing “something of value to impact whether or not someone votes,” and called for the matter to be investigated.
Florida Voting Rights
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.) claimed Tuesday that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg acted illegally when he helped raise $16 million to cover the court debts of felons in Florida so that they could be eligible to vote in the November election.
Bloomberg’s contribution comes after a years-long legal battle in Florida concerning the voting rights of felons.
Voters overwhelmingly approved a measure in 2018 to end the state’s lifetime ban on most felons voting. That measure, known as Amendment 4, effectively restored the voting rights of felons who had completed their parole and probation periods, with the exception of those who had been convicted of sex crimes or of murder. Around 1.5 million people — nearly 10% of the state’s adult population — were given the ability to vote.
Despite the fact that ending the ban had bipartisan support among Florida voters, shortly after Amendment 4 took effect, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation requiring felons to pay off all outstanding debts in order to be eligible to vote, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law in June 2019.
Under the law, roughly 775,000 felons still who owed fines related to their convictions would not be able to vote until they paid them off. That number included some of the estimated 85,000 who had already registered to vote since Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019.
However, the state offered almost no assistance for felons to determine how much they owed, or even if they owed anything at all. Officials even explicitly said it would take around six years to make a database for felons to look up their debts.
The Republican’s law immediately faced a number of legal challenges, and in May of this year, district court judge Robert Hinkle struck down the law, ruling that it was an unconstitutional “pay-to-vote system.”
In his decision, Hinkle argued that an “overwhelming majority” of the felons would not be able to pay their debts or even figure out how much they owed. He went so far as to say that the law amounted to a poll tax.
However, a federal appeals court blocked his order from going into effect while it considered the case, thus effectively allowing the law to stay in place. In July, the Supreme Court refused to overturn the federal appeals court’s decision to block felons from voting while they decided the case.
Then, just over a week ago, the appeals court delivered its final judgment, deciding in a 6-4 ruling that the Republican’s law was not unconstitutional, and that felons would be required to pay fees in order to vote.
The move prompted significant outrage, and civil rights groups representing the felons said they would keep fighting.
But with just weeks to go before the election — and even less time before Florida’s Oct. 5 voter registration deadline — it would be almost impossible for yet another full-scale legal battle to be resolved in their favor.
With little hope for any kind of sweeping legal change, many people instead began paying the fines felons owed so that they could vote. The effort, which has been spearheaded by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), specifically focuses on Black and Hispanic voters who are already registered and who owe debts that are less than $1,500.
According to the FRRC, the list of people who have donated to their cause includes Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and John Legend.
The largest donation so far, however, appears to be from Bloomberg and his team. The contribution, which the former mayor announced in a statement Tuesday, comes just after he pledged to give at least $100 million to elect Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Florida.
According to a memo accessed by The Washington Post, Bloomberg viewed the contribution as a more cost-effective way to get more Democratic votes in the state than persuading other voters.
“We have identified a significant vote share that requires a nominal investment. The data shows that in Florida, Black voters are a unique universe unlike any other voting bloc, where the Democratic support rate tends to be 90%-95%,” the memo allegedly read.
Although Bloomberg’s efforts are political, Desmond Meade, the president of the FRRC, emphasized in a statement to The Post that the group is nonpartisan and does not share Bloomberg’s goal of encouraging just one political party.
Gaetz Claims Bloomberg’s Donations are Illegal
While Meade said Bloomberg’s donation does not dictate how the FRRC is operating, others, including Gaetz, have raised legal questions regarding the move.
“[Under Florida law] it’s a third-degree felony for someone to either directly or indirectly provide something of value to impact whether or not someone votes. So the question is whether or not paying off someone’s fines and legal obligations counts as something of value, and it clearly does,” the representative explained when speaking with Fox New’s Sean Hannity Tuesday night.
“If Michael Bloomberg was offering to pay off people’s credit card debts, you would obviously see the value in that. When you improve someone’s net worth by eliminating their financial liabilities, that’s something of value.”
“I believe there may be a criminal investigation already underway of the Bloomberg-connected activities in Florida,” he added, noting that he had spoken with Florida’s Attorney General.
The existence of a criminal probe has not been confirmed by any law enforcement officials. Bloomberg, for his part, has not yet responded to the accusations.
In a matter as politically charged as felon voting rights, it is probable that both sides will pull out all the stops. Especially because, in a state as heavily contested as Florida, adding felons to the voter rolls could actually sway the election.
In 2016, President Donald Trump only won Florida in 2016 by 1.2 percentage points — less than 113,000 vote difference. Right now, polls from the state show Trump and Biden in a dead heat.