Sunday, April 17, 2016

Can The Government Decide Who is Catholic?

In Wisconsin, state law requires that each county provide transportation to all private schools for students who live more than a mile away from their school. The law also states that if there are two religious schools of the same denomination in the county, the schools are responsible for dividing the county in to non overlapping attendance areas. The district only must provide transportation for students to the school on their side of the county.  In a particular district, there is a Catholic school, St. Gabriel, as well as an independent school, St. Augustine. St. Augustine is an independent school that, while it teaches Catholic ideals, is not associated with the Catholic school system and the archdiocese. The school has its own governing body and their articles of incorporation state that they are separate from the Catholic church but promote “Catholic teachings.” The superintendent was the one who is given the task of deciding that St. Augustine classifies as Catholic school. The parents of three children are filing a case against the superintendent and the district. After the superintendent’s decision, their children were no longer provided transportation to St. Augustine because they do not live on the right side of the county. They claim that it is a violation of both the free exercise and establishment clauses.

Does the government making decisions about what is a Catholic school an infringement on the establishment clause? Does denying school children transportation qualify as a violation of the free practice clause?

Since this case calls into question issues of both free exercise and establishment, there are two separate details that are crucial. Firstly, in regards to the free exercise clause: the parents claim that they are unable to freely exercise their religion because their children do not receive transportation to school, where they will theoretically strengthen their religion. Secondly, in regards to establishment: the parents claim that the state violates the establishment clause because the superintendent is making decisions about what is Catholic.Since this case has to do with school buses, I was first reminded of Everson v. Board of Education. This case determined that parents are entitled to free buses for their children, regardless of whether they are being taken to a religious or non-religious school. The state law does not go against this ruling: theoretically, children can get free buses to the religious school of their parent’s choice. However, the question here is not whether Catholic school children should receive buses to school, but rather what is defined as a Catholic school. I would argue that this case is like Cantwell v. Connecticut. In that case, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to require religious groups to get a permit before soliciting on the street when non-religious solicitors did not have to do the same. One important point that was argued was that the government should not be given the authority to decide what qualified as a legitimate religious cause, and therefore have the authority of defining what was religious. I would argue that this same entanglement is happening here: The superintendent is given the authority to decide what is Catholic and what isn’t. In short, he is making calls about the definition of Catholicism. Personally, I do not think that the superintendent should be given the authority to decide what is Catholic. To me, that seems like a direct violation of the establishment clause. I would argue that this is a case of excessive entanglement.
Additionally, this is a violation of the free exercise clause. The parents of these children are encountering a burden because they lack buses to their school of choice based on their religion. There is a state interest to have the law: when there are two Catholic schools, splitting the district no doubt saves the district money by having their buses travel sorter distances each day. However, the individuals clearly believe that the religious education their children would receive at St. Gabriel is different from the one they would receive at St. Augustine. The state interest, I think, is trumped by this religious belief. Some may argue that since the schools are both Catholic, it shouldn’t matter that the schools are run by different governing bodies. This is a slippery slope: can the government then also group all Christian school as the “same religion?” I think it should be left up to the schools to self identify their religious views instead of having the district decide. If the view of the St. Gabriel and St. Augustine define themselves as different, the parents should have the authority to choose which one better aligns with their Catholic views. By splitting the district between two schools that may have different beliefs, the free exercise and establishment clauses are is violated.  


Jim R said...

I agree with Sarah's assessment of the case based on the Everson decision. The students are allowed to receive busing to their destinations regardless of what type of school they attend.

The one item I am slightly confused on is who should have the authority to decide on whether a school is Catholic.

As Sarah pointed out, the superintendent is given the authority to decide whether the school qualifies under Catholicism. This represents a state official making a decision about a religious sect, which is a violation of the Establishment Clause. However, the idea of self identification of schools, in my opinion, is also a violation. If the school were to self identify themselves as Christian, there would be other public officials (principals, teachers) making that distinction. Since the school has not declared itself to be Catholic (private) yet, it doesn't have the ability to set its own private standards, even though it has a governing body in place.

The decision to be part of the Catholic school systems also affects whether a church or a religious based school can receive tax benefits or tax relief in Sec 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code. If this is deemed as a Catholic institution, then it is possible for St. Augustine to receive exemptions from certain taxes.

Caroline Vauzelle said...

You did a really good job pointing out the biggest issue in this case, which is that the government is deciding on the nature of a religion. I think this might look easier to put all Catholics together for this particular religious current has very definite institutions. It would seem much more incoherent, for example, to put Lutherans and Presbyterians together, even though both movements are part of the Protestant current. There are in fact major divisions among the Catholic current, for some members of the Church are much more traditional than others, for example. I think denying those differences show that the government is not being neutral toward all religion, and thus that this case presents infringement of both the free exercise and the establishment clauses.

Hannah L. said...

I agree with Sarah and the comments above that this is a violation of the free exercise and establishment clauses. A government official is determining the denomination of a religious institution, which is clearly an entanglement of the state. In addition, all students should be receiving free transportation to school whether or not it is a private religious school, otherwise that is a violation of their free exercise of religion. And since I don't think the superintendent has the right to decide if the school is Catholic, the parents should have the right to choose which school to send their children to and receive free transportation to that school.