Catholic school sues over ban on state fund­ing

The Detroit News - - Front Page - BY BETH LEBLANC Detroit News Lans­ing Bu­reau

A Grand Rapids Catholic school is try­ing to in­val­i­date a nearly 50-year-old ban against us­ing state aid for pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion, ar­gu­ing it is “anti-Catholic” and vi­o­lates the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion.

Im­mac­u­late Heart of Mary filed a law­suit last month against the state be­cause the school is forced by the gov­ern­ment to com­ply with var­i­ous pub­lic health mea­sures but isn’t given state aid to help it meet the man­dates. It has asked the state Court of Claims to de­clare a voter-ap­proved mea­sure un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause it “forces a re­li­gious school to choose be­tween re­main­ing a re­li­gious school or be­come en­ti­tled to a pub­lic ben­e­fit.” The move comes af­ter sev­eral pub­lic school and par­ent groups led by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Michi­gan filed a law­suit last year in state court to block $2.5 mil­lion that law­mak­ers put in the state bud­get in 2017 to fund man­dates on non-pub­lic schools — re­quire­ments such as im­mu­niza­tion com­pli­ance, crim­i­nal back­ground checks, and fire and tor­nado drills. They ar­gued the state Con­sti­tu­tion’s so-called Blaine Amend­ment, passed by vot­ers in 1970 as “Pro­posal C,” pre­vents pub­lic dol­lars from go­ing to non-pub­lic schools.

In ad­di­tion, the pub­lic schools group said the 2017 bud­get failed to gain a su­per-ma­jor­ity of votes in the Sen­ate, a re­quire­ment when pub­lic funds are ap­pro­pri­ated for pri­vate pur­poses. The Leg­is­la­ture ap­pro­pri­ated $2.5 mil­lion in 2017 and 2018 for pri­vate schools and wants to do so again for the next

bud­get year.

The court granted an in­junc­tion that stopped the re­lease of the money, and the orig­i­nal ACLU law­suit is sched­uled for a hear­ing in Detroit on Mon­day. Lawyers who filed the Grand Rapids suit made a mo­tion Tues­day to con­sol­i­date their case with the 2017 law­suit and are await­ing a de­ci­sion.

The Grand Rapids school’s law­suit ar­gues the state’s so­called Blaine Amend­ment was de­vel­oped in a furor of “anti-Catholic sen­ti­ment” and should be dis­re­garded in the de­bate over the $2.5 mil­lion state al­lo­ca­tion for non-pub­lic schools.

“The Blaine Amend­ment is un­con­sti­tu­tional dis­crim­i­na­tion of re­li­gion,” said John Bursch, one of the lawyers bring­ing the suit.

Al­though the with­held money ac­counts for a mi­nus­cule por­tion of the $16 bil­lion ed­u­ca­tion bud­get, op­po­nents fear that al­low­ing it would set a prece­dent for larger sub­si­dies to pri­vate schools.

“We know that vot­ers many years ago voted not to have vouch­ers in the state, and we re­ally see this as a back-door way to get vouch­ers,” said Chris Wi­gent, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for Michi­gan As­so­ci­a­tion of School Ad­min­is­tra­tors.

In 2000, state vot­ers de­feated by 69-31 per­cent a bal­lot pro­posal to let par­ents in some strug­gling school dis­tricts use up to $3,100 in pub­lic money to pay for their child’s tu­ition at a pri­vate or re­li­gious school. The ef­fort was led by Grand Rapids area school choice ad­vo­cate Betsy DeVos, who be­came Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary in 2017. Vot­ers over­whelm­ingly de­feated a sim­i­lar voucher pro­posal in 1978.

Gov. Rick Sny­der, who asked the state Supreme Court to is­sue an opin­ion on the al­lo­ca­tion in 2016, has pro­posed elim­i­nat­ing the $2.5 mil­lion al­lot­ment in 2018 and 2019. But House law­mak­ers in­cluded the con­tro­ver­sial fund­ing for the third year run­ning in an early draft of the 2019 bud­get ap­proved Tues­day.

When a group that in­cluded Im­mac­u­late Heart of Mary School asked to join the state as de­fen­dants against the ACLU’s suit, the Court of Claims ruled

they could not.

In­stead, Im­mac­u­late Heart of Mary filed the sec­ond law­suit against the state on March 12, ask­ing the court to de­clare the state aid ban un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause it vi­o­lates the free ex­er­cise, free speech and equal pro­tec­tion clauses of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. The Catholic school asks the state Court of Claims to dis­perse the roughly $2.5 mil­lion promised in the state’s 2017 bud­get.

In the law­suit, ad­vo­cates ar­gued the state aid ban was tar­geted at Catholic schools seek­ing pub­lic fund­ing and was “in­tended to cur­tail the mi­nor­ity but grow­ing Catholic school sys­tem.”

The suit in­cludes ex­cerpts from news­pa­per clip­pings, ad­ver­tise­ments and cam­paign lit­er­a­ture in 1970 that speak to the al­leged anti-Catholic ba­sis for the amend­ment.

“And the re­li­gious in­vec­tive proved suc­cess­ful,” the law­suit said. “Based on anti-Catholic rhetoric, vot­ers nar­rowly ap­proved Pro­posal C with 56 per­cent of the votes cast in Novem­ber 1970.”

A su­per-ma­jor­ity vote in the Sen­ate was not needed to ap­prove the $2.5 mil­lion in 2017 fund­ing be­cause the aid served a pub­lic pur­pose, said Bursch, for­mer Michi­gan so­lic­i­tor gen­eral un­der At­tor­ney Gen­eral Bill Schuette.

“When you’re talk­ing about funds for hun­dreds of thou­sands of pri­vate school stu­dents for the pub­lic pur­pose of safety and wel­fare, that’s clearly a pub­lic pur­pose,” he said.

In a March let­ter to Im­mac­u­late Heart of Mary fam­i­lies, the Rev. Troy Nevins said the Grand Rapids school has al­ways com­pleted drills and train­ing, but state guide­lines now pre­vent the school from run­ning those ser­vices

ef­fi­ciently.

“The costs as­so­ci­ated with the man­dates are cur­rently be­ing ab­sorbed by our parishes, par­ents, and donors, which is not eq­ui­table,” Nevins wrote. “These ser­vices have noth­ing to do with our ed­u­ca­tional mis­sion.”

Those fil­ing the law­suit in­clude Im­mac­u­late Heart of Mary, par­ents Stephen and Jen­nifer San­ford, Repub­li­can state Sens. Phil Pavlov of St. Clair and Patrick Col­beck of Can­ton Town­ship and GOP state Reps. Tim Kelly of Saginaw Town­ship and Kim LaSata of Bain­bridge.

Named in the law­suit are the state of Michi­gan, Sny­der, the Michi­gan Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and State Su­per­in­ten­dent Brian Whis­ton. The state ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment and gover­nor’s of­fice de­clined com­ment, cit­ing the on­go­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

David Maluchnik, a spokesman for the Michi­gan Catholic Con­fer­ence, said the group is not in­volved in the suit, but be­lieves it “has merit.”

“MCC’s fo­cus is on the friv­o­lous suit brought by the ACLU,” Maluchnik said. “We are con­fi­dent that the at­tor­ney gen­eral, the gover­nor and the state leg­is­la­ture are all cor­rect that the $2.5 mil­lion ap­pro­pri­a­tion is an al­low­able ex­pen­di­ture by the state.”

Steven Nor­ton, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Michi­gan Par­ents for Schools, said his group joined the ACLU’s law­suit last year be­cause the $2.5 mil­lion for pri­vate schools ap­peared to be an at­tempt to chip away at the rules about pub­lic fund­ing.

“The ques­tion isn’t whether schools be­long to or are af­fil­i­ated with any re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Nor­ton said. “The ques­tion is whether the schools are ac­count­able to the pub­lic or not.”

Jaymie Perry / Face­book

Im­mac­u­late Heart of Mary, a Grand Rapids Catholic school, is su­ing the state over its ban against us­ing state aid for pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion.

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