Supreme Court Hears Landmark Case Regarding Scholarships for Religious Schools
- 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)
Trump Lawyer Notes Indicate Former President May Have Obstructed Justice in Mar-a-Lago Documents Probe
The notes add to a series of recent reports that seem to paint a picture of possible obstruction.
Corcoran’s Notes on Mar-a-Lago
Prosecutors have 50 pages of notes from Donald Trump’s lawyer Evan Corcoran that show the former president was explicitly told he could not keep any more classified documents after he was subpoenaed for their return, according to a new report by The Guardian.
The notes, which were disclosed by three people familiar with the matter, present new evidence that indicates Trump obstructed justice in the investigation into classified documents he improperly kept at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
In June, Corcoran found around 40 classified documents in a storage room at Mar-a-Lago while complying with the initial subpoena. The attorney told the Justice Department that no additional documents were on the property.
In August, however, the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago and discovered about 100 more.
The Guardian’s report is significant because it adds a piece to the puzzle prosecutors are trying to put together: whether Trump obstructed justice when he failed to comply with the subpoena by refusing to return all the documents he had or even trying to hide them intentionally.
As the outlet noted, prosecutors have been “fixated” on Trump’s valet, Walt Nauta, since he told them that the former president directed him to move boxes out of the storage room before and after the subpoena. His actions were also captured on surveillance footage.
The sources familiar with Corcoran’s notes said the pages revealed that both Trump and the Nauta “had unusually detailed knowledge of the botched subpoena response, including where Corcoran intended to search and not search for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, as well as when Corcoran was actually doing his search.”
At one point, Corcoran allegedly noted how he had told the Nauta about the subpoena prior to his search for the documents because the lawyer needed him to unlock the storage room, showing how closely involved the valet was from the get-go.
Corcoran further stated that Nauta had even offered to help go through the boxes, but the attorney declined. Beyond that, the report also asserted that the notes “suggested to prosecutors that there were times when the storage room might have been left unattended while the search for classified documents was ongoing.”
Adding to the Evidence
If real, Corcoran’s notes are very damning, especially considering other recent reports concerning Trump’s possible efforts to obstruct the documents probe.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times reported that Corcoran had testified before a grand jury that multiple Trump employees told him the Mar-a-Lago storage room was the only place the documents were kept.
“Although Mr. Corcoran testified that Mr. Trump did not personally convey that false information, his testimony hardly absolved the former president,” the outlet reported, referencing people with knowledge of the matter.
“Mr. Corcoran also recounted to the grand jury how Mr. Trump did not tell his lawyers of any other locations where the documents were stored, which may have effectively misled the legal team.”
Additionally, the only reason that Corcoran handed over these notes was that he was under court order to do so. Corcoran had refused to turn the materials over, citing attorney-client privilege.
A federal judge rejected that claim on the grounds that there was reason to believe a lawyer’s advice or services were used to further a crime — meaning prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to prove Trump may have acted criminally.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (The New York Times) (Vanity Fair)
Homeless Men Promised Money to Pose as Veterans in Anti-Immigrant Scheme, Sources Allege
New York State Attorney General Letitia James said she is reviewing whether to launch a formal investigation into the ruse.
A story that was spread by right-wing media about homeless veterans getting evicted from their hotel rooms to make way for asylum seekers has turned out to be false, according to numerous sources.
Early this month, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan to bus some migrants to hotels in neighboring counties, where they would stay for several months.
Orange County and Rockland County filed lawsuits to block the move, and the state supreme court granted both temporary restraining orders, but many migrants had already arrived. To make room for the incoming migrants, one hotel in Orange County forced at least 15 homeless veterans to leave, media reported at the time.
But several homeless men told local outlets they had allegedly been offered payment if they posed as military veterans staying at the hotel.
Sharon Toney-Finch, head of Yerik Israel Toney Foundation (YIT), a nonprofit that houses the homeless, allegedly masterminded the scheme.
Her associates allegedly rounded up 15 homeless men at a shelter and promised them as much as $200 each if they spoke with a local politician about homelessness. But they told reporters that when they met Toney-Finch at a diner, she presented her real plan. They would speak to a local chamber of commerce instead, the men recalled, and if they weren’t comfortable with telling the lie, Toney-Finch instructed them to say they had PTSD and couldn’t speak.
After fulfilling their end of the bargain, however, they said she never paid them the cash they were promised.
Several of them described the ordeal to media outlets, and reporters soon poked more holes in the story.
The Times Union published a copy of a credit card receipt that purportedly showed a payment of more than $37,000 for rooms at the Crossroads Hotel for the unhoused veterans alongside a copy of what appears to be Toney-Finch’s credit card.
But a graphics expert who examined the documents said the receipt appeared to have been “altered with smudges behind the darker type and [had] different fonts,” according to Mid Hudson News.
A hotel manager also told the outlet he could not find any record of the transaction, and there were no veterans at the hotel and nobody was kicked out.
Local Republican state assembly member Brian Maher, who previously reacted to the fake story with outrage, told The Times Union he felt “devastated and disheartened” when he learned that he was duped.
“She alluded to the fact that, ‘Maybe it’s not exactly how I said it was,’” Maher recalled, describing a conversation with Toney-Finch. “This is something I believe hurt a lot of people.”
New York State Attorney General Leticia James is reportedly reviewing the incident to determine if a formal investigation is warranted.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (CNN) (The New York Times)
Lawmakers Have 10 Days to Reach Debt Deal: Here’s How Failure Would Impact Americans
In addition to causing massive disruptions to the U.S. economy and global markets, failure to prevent a debt default could seriously harm Social Security and Medicare recipients, veterans, federal workers, and many more Americans.
President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) met Monday to discuss ongoing debt ceiling negotiations as the deadline to reach an agreement looms nearer and nearer.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has repeatedly said that June 1 is the “hard deadline” by which the debt ceiling must be raised to prevent the U.S. from defaulting for the first time in history. Such a failure could trigger a recession and send global markets into complete disarray.
Despite the ticking doomsday clock, Republicans and Democrats have failed to reach any agreement, remaining firm in the lines they have drawn.
Republicans have said they will support any debt deal until Biden agrees to massive spending cuts that would significantly roll back much of his domestic agenda. Biden has refused to cave, and Democratic negotiators instead proposed a plan to freeze but not reduce federal spending in the next fiscal year.
Republicans rejected that plan Friday, abruptly ending negotiations. While talks briefly restarted later the same evening, they stalled again, prompting Biden — who was at a G7 summit in Japan — to cut his trip short and head home to take a hand in the talks.
The president and the House Speaker did seem to express some tentative optimism after sharing a call Sunday where they set the meeting.
In comments to reporters, McCarthy said that Biden: “walked through some of the things that he’s still looking at, he’s hearing from his members; I walked through things I’m looking at. I felt that part was productive. But look — there’s no agreement. We’re still apart.”
Biden also echoed that, telling reporters late Sunday night that the call “went well” — a marked shift from comments he made at the summit over the weekend, where he slammed House Republicans.
“I can’t guarantee that they wouldn’t force a default,” he said at one point. Biden also once again raised the possibility of invoking the 14th Amendment to declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional because of a clause that requires the U.S. to pay its debts.
At the summit, the president asserted that he had the “authority” to take such a step but reiterated that this is a last resort option.
Impacts on the American People
In addition to having a catastrophic effect on the U.S. economy and global markets, failing to reach the debt ceiling would also seriously impact many everyday Americans.
“The most drastic impact might be a pause in regular federal payments to tens of millions of American families, including seniors on Medicare and Social Security and people relying on food stamps,” The Washington Post explained.
Specifically, failure to raise the debt ceiling could delay essential federal payments to tens of millions of Americans who rely on them for their livelihoods. This includes the over 60 million people — mostly seniors — who receive monthly Social Security payments, as well as a similar number of Medicaid recipients.
Those folks would be forced to miss out on the $25 billion in Social Security benefits and $47 billion for Medicare providers the government is scheduled to pay in early June.
The veterans would be affected, as the government is supposed to pay out $12 billion in benefits on June 1 — the same day as the expected default.
Many of the millions of federal employees could also be placed in limbo if the federal government is unable to pay the $4 billion in salaries it needs by June 9. That situation could further harm many essential workers like military personnel, food safety inspectors, and air traffic controllers, among others.