U.S. Supreme Court gives legs to anti-Blaine Amendment crusade

Speculation swirled after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Missouri could not exclude private religious schools from a playground grant program.

Did justices signal they set their sights on a legal obstacle to school vouchers? Even informed legal scholars disagreed.

But the high court sent a much clearer signal this morning.

Justices granted a petition by the Douglas County, Colo. school board. The school district wanted the high court to review a ruling that hobbled its local voucher program. State courts argued vouchers violate the Blaine Amendment in Colorado’s constitution, which bars public funding of religious institutions.

The school district argues the provision unfairly discriminates against religious institutions — much like the Missouri playground equipment program.

This morning, federal justices ordered the Colorado Supreme Court to revisit its ruling in the case “in light of” yesterday’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Missouri. 

That suggests at least some justices believe they set an important legal precedent that could affect the constitutionality of school vouchers in states where Blaine Amendments pose a real obstacle.

Blaine Amendments are not the absolute barrier to vouchers that opponents sometimes claim. State Supreme Courts in Nevada and Oklahoma, for example, have recently held vouchers still pass muster under state constitutions that bar funding of religious institutions.

Still, it’s clear the Colorado school district’s legal crusade could have implications across the country. And now, it’s also clear that case has serious legs.

Michael Bindas, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, is helping the Douglas County school district bring its case.

“Today’s order sends a strong signal that just as the U.S. Supreme Court would not tolerate the use of a Blaine Amendment to exclude a religious preschool from a playground resurfacing program, it will not tolerate the use of Blaine Amendments to exclude religious options from school choice programs,” Bindas said in a statement.

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