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EDITORIAL: Missouri case has ramifications for school choice

The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard arguments in a Missouri case involving school playgrounds that could also have ramifications for educational choice programs.

The issue involves a program in the Show Me State that provides money to schools to cover the costs of using old tires to rubberize playground surfaces in hopes of making them safer. The Trinity Lutheran Church, which runs a preschool, applied for such a grant but was rejected solely because the Missouri constitution bars taxpayer funds from going to religious schools.

Nevada has a similar provision — known as a Blaine amendment — which opponents of school choice tried to use to scuttle Gov. Brian Sandoval’s ambitious education savings account proposal. The state Supreme Court rejected that reasoning, but held that lawmakers had improperly funded the choice initiative.

In the Missouri case, the church contested the denial of funds all the way to the high court, arguing that the program was secular and that excluding religious schools was a form of discrimination. “The religious should not be forced to choose between their religious identity and equal participation in public life,” wrote Christian Holcomb, an attorney representing the school, in an op-ed in The Hill. “Such religious discrimination has no place in a diverse, tolerant society.”

The justices seemed sympathetic to the church’s position. The left-leaning Stephen Breyer inquired whether Missouri could deny police or fire protection to churches. The Economist noted that “Justice Breyer grew frustrated with [Missouri’s] seeming inability to draw a line between legitimate expenditures of state funds and spending that violates the Missouri constitution.”

In fact, the Missouri program was the opposite of neutral. State officials specifically singled out religious institutions for separate treatment, which is why even the liberal justices seemed skeptical during oral arguments.

Those opposed to school choice have used similar arguments to challenge the constitutionality of vouchers or tax credits used to cover tuition at private religious schools. Never mind that such programs, including the one currently on hold in Nevada pending a legislative fix, are completely indifferent toward religion — the parents, not the state, decide where the money will be spent.

A ruling in favor of the Missouri church will potentially eliminate one of the primary lines of attack against state or local school choice programs. That would not only be good news for Trinity Lutheran, but for the millions of parents who desperately seek more educational options for their children.

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