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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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Mississippi Asks Supreme Court To Overturn Roe v. Wade

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The Supreme Court’s decision to consider Mississippi’s restrictive abortion ban already has sweeping implications for the precedents set under the landmark reproductive rights ruling, but now the state is asking the high court to go even further.


Mississippi’s Abortion Case

Mississippi filed a brief Thursday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade when it hears the state’s 15-week abortion ban this fall.

After months of deliberation, the high court agreed in May to hear what will be the first abortion case the 6-to-3 conservative majority will decide.

Both a district judge and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit had ruled that Mississippi could not enforce the 2018 law that banned nearly all abortions at 15 weeks with exceptions for only “severe fetal abnormality,” but not rape and incest.

If the Supreme Court upholds the Mississippi law, it would undo decades of precedent set under Roe in 1973 and upheld under Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, where the court respectively ruled and reaffirmed that states could not ban abortion before the fetus is “viable” and can live outside the womb, which is generally around 24 to 28 weeks.

When the justices decided to hear the case, they said they would specifically examine the question of whether “all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.”

Depending on the scope of their decision on the Mississippi law, the court’s ruling could allow other states to pass much more restrictive abortion bans without the risk of lower courts striking down those laws.

As a result, legal experts have said the case will represent the most significant ruling on reproductive rights since Casey nearly three decades ago, and the Thursday brief raises the stakes even more.

When Mississippi asked the justices to take up its case last June, the state’s attorney general, Lynn Fitch (R), explicitly stated that the petition’s questions “do not require the Court to overturn Roe or Casey.”

But that was before the court’s conservatives solidified their supermajority with the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett — who personally opposes abortion — following the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

New Filing Takes Aim at Roe

With the new filing, it appears that Fitch views the high court’s altered makeup as an opportunity to undermine the constitutional framework that has been in place for the better part of the last century.

“The Constitution’s text says nothing about abortion,” Fitch wrote in the brief, arguing that American society has changed so much that the previous rulings need to be reheard.

“Today, adoption is accessible and on a wide scale women attain both professional success and a rich family life, contraceptives are more available and effective, and scientific advances show that an unborn child has taken on the human form and features months before viability,” she added, claiming the power should be left to state lawmakers. 

“Roe and Casey shackle states to a view of the facts that is decades out of date,” she continued. “The national fever on abortion can break only when this Court returns abortion policy to the states.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents Mississippi’s sole abortion provider in the suit against the state’s law, painted Fitch’s effort as one that will have a chilling effect on abortion rights nationwide.

“Mississippi has stunningly asked the Supreme Court to overturn Roe and every other abortion rights decision in the last five decades,” Nancy Northup, the president and CEO of the group said in a statement Thursday. “Today’s brief reveals the extreme and regressive strategy, not just of this law, but of the avalanche of abortion bans and restrictions that are being passed across the country.”

The Supreme Court has not yet said exactly when during its fall term it will hear oral arguments on the Mississippi case, but a decision is expected to come down by next June or July, as is standard.

An anticipated ruling just months before the 2022 midterms will almost certainly position abortion as a top issue at the ballot box.

See what others are saying:  (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (Politico)

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Republicans Boycott Jan. 6 Committee After Pelosi Rejects Two of McCarthy’s Picks

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The House Minority Leader said that unless House Speaker Pelosi reinstated the two members, Republicans will launch their own investigation into the insurrection.


Pelosi Vetoes Republicans

Republicans are boycotting the select committee to investigate the insurrection after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) rejected two of the five GOP members Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) picked to serve on the panel Wednesday.

In a statement, Pelosi cited the “statements and actions” of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Oh.) and Jim Banks (R-In.), whose nominations she said she was opposing “with respect for the integrity of the investigation.”

Jordan and Banks — both staunch allies of former President Donald Trump — have helped propagate the previous leader’s false election claims, opposed efforts to investigate the insurrection, and voted not to certify the election for President Joe Biden. 

A senior Democratic aide also specifically told The Washington Post that Democrats did not want Jordan on the panel because he reportedly helped Trump strategized how to overturn the election and due to the fact he spoke to the then-president on Jan. 6, meaning there is a possibility he could be called to testify before the very same committee.

The aide also said that Democrats opposed Banks’ selection because of a statement he issued after McCarthy chose him.

In the statement, the representative compared the insurrection to the racial justice protests last summer, implied that the rioters were just normal American’s expressing their political views, and claimed the committee was a political ploy “to justify the Left’s authoritarian agenda.”

Notably, Pelosi did say she would accept McCarthy’s three other nominees — including Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Wi.), who also voted against certifying Biden’s win.

McCarthy Threatens Separate Investigation

McCarthy, however, refused to select new members, and instead opted to remove all his appointees from the would-be bipartisan committee.

In a statement condemning the move, the minority leader said that Pelosi’s action “represents an egregious abuse of power.” 

“Denying the voices of members who have served in the military and law enforcement, as well as leaders of standing committees, has made it undeniable that this panel has lost all legitimacy and credibility and shows the Speaker is more interested in playing politics than seeking the truth,” he said.

“Unless Speaker Pelosi reverses course and seats all five Republican nominees, Republicans will not be party to their sham process and will instead pursue our own investigation of the facts.”

Pelosi defended her decision during a press conference Thursday, where she said that Banks and Jordan were “ridiculous” choices for the panel. 

“When statements are ridiculous and fall into the realm of, ‘You must be kidding,’ there’s no way that they’re going to be on the committee,” she added.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CNBC)

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More Republican Are Pushing COVID Vaccinations, But the Party Remains Divided on Its Messaging

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The renewed effort to encourage vaccination comes as the surge in COVID cases caused by the delta variant continues to disproportionately impact Republican-led states with low vaccination rates.


GOP Leaders Ramps Up Vaccination Push

In recent days, more Republican leaders and prominent conservatives have ramped up efforts to encourage members of their party to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the U.S. continues to see massive surges from the delta variant.

Some, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have been pushing Americans to get vaccinated for months — a call he reiterated again on Tuesday. Many others, however, have been reticent to do the same until recently.

Most notable on that list is Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the no. 2 Republican in House leadership, who just got his first dose over the weekend after resisting vaccination, claiming he had antibodies from previously contracting COVID. Scalise explained he changed his mind because of delta and encouraged others to do the same.

“There shouldn’t be any hesitancy over whether or not it’s safe and effective,” he said.

The top leader is set to continue pushing that advice. Earlier this week, the GOP Doctors Caucus announced that it would hold a news conference Thursday alongside Scalise and the third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), to encourage vaccination.

Rank and File Republicans Continue To Cast Doubt, Spread Misinformation

There are still plenty of Republicans working to undermine the renewed push to get their party vaccinated.

While many have painted vaccination as a matter of freedom of choice, others have sought to downplay the virus. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose state currently accounts for 40% of all new COVID cases, dismissed the spikes as the result of a “seasonal virus” on Monday.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk — who has had COVID twice — echoed that in a statement to reporters on Tuesday, where he argued that COVID is just something everyone has to live with.

“This is something we deal with in our lives on a daily basis; ever since I’ve been born, there’s sicknesses, there’s flu, there’s different diseases,” he said.

Some members of the GOP have used their positions of power to actively fight against vaccination. That includes Sen. Ron Johnson (Wi.), who has openly said he is not vaccinated. He has also been widely condemned for promoting unproven treatments and false information about vaccines during interviews and congressional hearings.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), who has repeatedly refused to share her vaccination status, has also drawn ire for sharing misinformation and continually comparing COVID prevention efforts to the Holocaust.

Greene was temporarily suspended from Twitter earlier this week for sharing false information on Monday, but she continued to utilize her spotlight to spread misinformation about vaccine-related deaths and side effects during a press conference the following day.

Uphill Battle

While those who downplay the coronavirus and spread false information about vaccinations are certainly not representative of the entire Republican Party, they are some of the most visible.

Greene and many of her counterparts who push anti-vaccine narratives have frequently been accused of acting in inflammatory ways to get more press — a strategy that more often than not tends to work in their favor. 

As a result, Republicans who want to encourage people to get the jabs will have their work cut out for them. Even many of those who have not openly expressed skepticism themselves have still let it flourish in the party for so long by not publicly pushing back against claims from members who sow disinformation.

The GOP’s broader failure to unify around a singular message on vaccines shows clearly among the party’s base.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News, poll 86% of Democrats have received at least one shot, but just 45% of Republicans have done the same. While just 6% of Democrats say they are not likely to get the vaccine, 47% of Republicans said they probably will not, and 38% said they definitely will not. 

Meanwhile, Republican-led states with low vaccination rates are suffering the most from the new spike in cases and the rapid spread of the delta variant. 

Arkansas, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country at just 35%, is currently reporting the highest per-capita cases in the U.S. Hospitalizations have gone up 85% in the state in the last two weeks, placing some hospital systems on the brink of collapse — a problem also faced by parts of Missouri, which has the third-highest COVID cases nationwide.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (The Hill)

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