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Joel Belz - It’s a fight for free-exercise rights


WORLD Radio - Joel Belz - It’s a fight for free-exercise rights

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 5th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. One of the big religious-freedom cases at the Supreme Court right now, you heard about on Monday’s Legal Docket. 

Today, we’ll tell you another angle of the story in a way that will also touch on what the First Amendment protects—except in this case, not religion, but the press. Here’s WORLD founder Joel Belz.

JOEL BELZ, FOUNDER: Last month AP reported on the so-called “Stillwater School”—a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. For the most part, the report was even-handed and adequately covered the five “w’s” of news reporting: who, what, when, where, and why.

But AP reporter Mark Sherman missed his opportunity to highlight and clarify the first “w” in the story. It’s true that Stillwater Christian School of Kalispell, Montana, is a player in this drama. But the real focus belongs on a couple of students at Stillwater and their parents.

Here’s what happened: Five years ago the Montana State Legis­lature passed a measure providing modest scholarship assistance for all students—regardless of where they enrolled. These particular parents signed on.

But soon Montana’s Supreme Court negated the scholarship program. It ruled the program countered long-standing provisions of Montana’s constitution. The parents’ appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case on January 22nd.

AP’s reporter Sherman wrote—quote—“Advocates on both sides say the out­come could be momentous because it could lead to efforts in other states to funnel taxpayer money to religious schools.” End quote. 

Here we go again. The bogeyman is always the faceless “schools.” But the Montana plan specifically designated the parents as recipients of the scholarship benefit. That should be the focus.  

Here’s why that matters. Montana is one of 37 states that have provisions in their state constitutions saying religious schools aren’t eligible for state aid.

Many of those provisions are so-called “Blaine amendments.” The Wall Street Journal described those amendments as “late 19th century language, amid that era’s anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic fervor.” Most of these provisions said what Montana’s bluntly spelled out: The state can’t spend public funds for “any sectarian purpose.”

Most efforts to dilute that prohibition for much of the last century have ended up heightening the “walls of separation” between church and state. It’s been only in the last 20 years that a few cases have begun empha­sizing the “free exercise” side of our First Amendment rights instead of the “no establishment” emphasis.

The Stillwater parents who heard their case argued before the Supreme Court want the point made in simple, human terms. They’re encouraged by the 2017 Trinity Lutheran case—when the high court ruled 7-to-2 that a Missouri ban on financial aid to a school like Trinity couldn’t stand. 

The issue: if public money was being made avail­able to secular schools to resurface playgrounds, it had to be available to all schools. Period. 

If the court stays consistent here, it could finally level the playing field for Christian parents all over the country.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Joel Belz.

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez) A man rests at the top of the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

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