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NM told to revisit private school textbook case

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday overruled the state's highest court's 2015 ruling barring state tax funds from paying for textbooks at private schools, including religious schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday overruled the state's highest court's 2015 decision barring state tax funds from paying for textbooks at private schools, including religious schools.

The federal opinion says the state court must revisit the case filed in 2012 by two New Mexico parents – Cathy Moses of Santa Fe and Paul Weinbaum of Las Cruces – against the state's Public Education Department, and ultimately against private schools and groups, including Albuquerque Academy and the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools

The lawsuit attempted to end the 30-year state practice of allowing public funds, about $1 million a year, to pay for textbooks and computer programs at private, including some religious, schools. Legally, the schools could not use the funding for religious materials. The lawsuit held that the use of public funds for private religious school books forced taxpayers to follow religious dictates.

A state court and the state Court of Appeals dismissed the parents' claim, but the state Supreme Court sided with the parents, resulting in public funds for textbooks being cut off from 109 private schools in the state.

The New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools appealed, and the case ended up in the federal high court, which was deciding a similar case from Missouri about state funding of a playground project at a religious school. That case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, was decided Monday, and on Tuesday morning, the federal justices sent four public education-type cases back to the originating states for reconsideration – including New Mexico's.

The U.S. Supreme Court's opinion directs New Mexico justices to reconsider the textbook funding case in light of the Missouri playground case, in which justices decided it is unconstitutional to ban public funds from paying for certain projects at religious schools based solely on the schools' private or religious status.

The opinion was not unanimous, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor saying the decision to allow public funds to pay for projects at religious schools “discounts centuries of history and jeopardizes the government's ability to remain secular.”

Still, attorneys representing the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools say in their appeal that the Tuesday opinion shows that “states are getting a clear message from the Supreme Court: They can't exclude people from participating in government programs because of their religion,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, the nonprofit law firm that represented the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools. “The court's back-to-back rulings prove that it shouldn't matter what your faith is – everyone has the right to participate in society on equal footing.”

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