One of the root beliefs that informs daily life at many of our schools is “we can do hard things.” This conviction comes from our Catholic belief that each of us is made in the image and likeness of God. You might hear a teacher encourage students to keep trying on a difficult multi-step math problem with a reminder that we can do hard things, or a P.E. teacher reminding students of the same article of faith as he calls for one more lap. While there is no incense involved, and it may not look religious to some, the belief that we can do hard things is one example of the Catholic faith in action in our schools.
This week, Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee joined a panel hosted by the Manhattan Institute to discuss the possibility that we as a nation might be on the verge of doing a hard thing: overcoming over 170 years of bigotry and discrimination. The panel discussed what the future could look like if the Supreme Court decides this year in Carson v. Makin to overturn a Maine law that allows public funding to go to some private schools but not others—based solely on the state’s judgment of how religious the private schools are. As Notre Dame legal scholar Nicole Stelle Garnett said, the Maine law codifies “fear of religious instruction born of bigotry.”
If the Supreme Court overturns the Maine law, then it could lead eventually to greater opportunities for public funding of faith-based schools. Our Cleveland Partnership Schools, for example, have access to publicly funded scholarships or vouchers; in part because New York has a Blaine Amendment, a legacy of 19th century anti-Catholic prejudice, our families in New York City do not. Carson v. Makin could “clear the path” of at least one obstacle to such funding.
More fundamentally according to the Manhattan Institute panelists, this Supreme Court case could invite Americans to look at schools, religion, and religious institutions in a new light.
“Like it or not, your tax dollars are going to teaching a particular set of values.”
As Kathleen pointed out, public and faith-based schools have more in common than many people think. “The reality is that every school in America teaches a set of values,” she noted. “Like it or not, your tax dollars are going to teaching a particular set of values, even if it isn’t labelled a faith. Teaching values isn’t just something that happens in a faith-based school.” But it is labelled as a religious activity when it happens in schools sponsored by organized religions.
And as moderator Andy Smarick noted, many Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim schools weave religion throughout the day—“faith is a line through everything”—so the current concept in American law of being able to distinguish between a religious school’s status as faith-based and its use of public funds for religious purposes is based on a notion of what it means to practice religion that many of us do not recognize.
Pepperdine Law Professor Michael Helfand elaborated that such ideas about what it means to be religious are based on a “majoritarian conception of how religion works” that fails to reflect the way some people practice their religions. He used the example of Jewish congregations who have asserted that adherents have a religious obligation to receive the COVID vaccine, thus making getting it essentially a religious activity. Likewise, if a national school lunch provider serves halal meals for Muslim students or kosher meals for Jewish students in a public school, or provides a non-meat option on Fridays in a heavily Catholic area, they are using public funds in an activity that is very much about religious practice. The very nature of religious practice makes separating it from public funding a quixotic and ultimately impractical exercise.
“We just want religion included on equal terms” in larger civic projects like education, Prof. Helfand explained. And Prof. Garnett agreed, explaining that “the Constitution is not hostile to religion—it is welcoming to religion.” She went on to share that the arguments in Carson v Makin have been argued by Catholic church for 175 years—ever since New York Bishop Dagger John Hughes argued unsuccessfully for public funding for Catholic and Jewish schools because they are a public good, often serving the poor, and to exclude us from public funding is bigotry and discrimination. “Education policy that excludes them is unjust and foolish,” Garnett concludes.
At Partnership Schools, we are honored to be included with two national Jewish and Muslim organizations in an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in this case. Every day in our schools, we pursue equity and the American dream while we seek to live out our faith—and the hope that all of our students might one day be able to access public funding on equal footing with their peers is a day we look forward to with hope.