Unless you are the parent of a student at a Catholic school, you may not know that this week is Catholic Schools Week. As mothers of happy parochial school students and successful graduates, it’s a big deal for us.
Every year at this time, we celebrate these safe and nurturing institutions that not only prepare our children academically for their professional futures, but also instill virtues that will allow them to excel as citizens, spouses, and parents. We are grateful for both the relative affordability of these schools and their role as safe havens for generations of disadvantaged and immigrant children who might otherwise be trapped in failing public schools.
In fact, the whole country should be celebrating Catholic schools this week and hoping for a favorable result in a case argued before the Supreme Court just last week: Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. This case could make it easier for more families – Catholic and non-Catholic, religious and non-religious – to benefit from Catholic and other religious private schools.
At the heart of Espinoza are the infamous Blaine Amendments that are found in the constitutions of 37 states, including Montana. These laws were passed during dark days of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigotry in the 1800’s to prohibit the government from funding schools run by the Catholic Church for newly-arrived immigrant children. At that time, public school students read from Protestant Bibles and recited Protestant prayers. Catholic schools were safe havens from nativist hostility to immigrants as well as the imposition of Protestantism. Today, Catholic schools are a bastion against liberal secularism, the new “religion” found in our public schools.
The state’s Blaine Amendment prompted the Montana Supreme Court to shut down a tax-credit scholarship program that awarded money to low-income families to defray tuition costs at religious and non-religious private schools. The mothers who’ve challenged this ruling all the way to U.S. Supreme Court argue that the free exercise of religion guaranteed under our First Amendment means that the state can’t exclude families from a scholarship program simply because they choose religious schools. Low-income parents across the country, hoping for a little help from the government so they can send their kids to a parochial school, may well find their dreams realized if the infamous Blaine Amendments are ruled unconstitutional.
One of the amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs shared the overwhelmingly positive experience of seven Montana Catholic school families. The Catholic Association Foundation’s friend of the court brief makes clear what’s at stake for parents who need financial assistance to send their kids to Catholic schools. Disadvantaged students educated in Catholic schools – generally at a per-pupil cost far lower than their public counterparts – have had their lives transformed and been given tools that too many public school kids can only dream of receiving. Free from damaging ideologies and experimental teaching styles, and from the clash of economic and political interests that roil today’s public school system, Catholic schools are characterized by an atmosphere of cooperation and trust. Their clear and shared moral vision puts the ethical and moral development of each student on the same level as academic growth.
Everyone, we think, has a stake in Catholic schools’ success. These schools stand out in an American educational landscape that is sadly deficient. The end of the Blaine Amendments in Montana and the many other states where religious intolerance is kept alive could spell the beginning of better opportunities for the students who need them most.
Dr. Grazie Christie is Senior Policy Advisor at The Catholic Association. Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is a Legal Advisor at the Catholic Association. They are also co-hosts of Conversations with Consequences, an engaging and in-depth radio show airing Saturdays at 5 pm EST on EWTN-affiliates and Sirius XM Channel 130.