Thanks to the 2017 Trinity Lutheran decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, school children in New Mexico’s religious schools will be able to borrow books through the state’s book lending program. The New Mexico case, Moses v. Ruszkowski, arose when two atheists challenged the state’s 100-year-old book-lending program for students enrolled in first through twelfth grades and early childhood education programs. The activists claimed that the state violated its own constitution by lending books to private schools, including religious ones.
And they had a point. The New Mexico Constitution, like many state constitutions, contained what is known as a “Blaine Amendment,” (Article XII, Section 3) which prohibits state funding and aid going to “sectarian or denominational” schools. The original Blaine Amendment, which failed in Congress as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War, later found its way into 38 state constitutions. The amendment, unfortunately, was birthed out of anti-Catholic sentiment following heavy Catholic immigration and the growth of parochial schools across America. New Mexico was even required, as a condition of statehood in 1910, to include the Blaine Amendment language in its Constitution.
Fast forward to 2017. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled, in the case brought by the atheist challengers, that the book lending program was unconstitutional under the state constitution’s “Blaine Amendment.” The state then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
About that same time, the Trinity Lutheran decision was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. That case involved a Missouri grant program allowing non-profits to apply for state funds to pay for recycled rubber material to resurface playgrounds. However, the Missouri state government denied Trinity Lutheran’s application for its kindergarten playground solely on the basis that it was religious, relying on Missouri’s version of the Blaine Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled that Missouri had violated Trinity Lutheran’s First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion. The Court’s majority opinion stated that where government programs are generally available, they cannot be denied to religious organizations or people solely on the basis of their religion.
The very next day, the Supreme Court sent the New Mexico book lending appeal back to that state’s highest court with an order to reconsider the case “in light of” the Trinity Lutheran ruling. And now, having done so, the state court has reversed course and upheld the constitutionality of their book lending program.
That’s good news for religious freedom in New Mexico. It can also be seen as the first blow to the constitutionality of the “Blaine Amendments” that still exist in so many state constitutions. They are an ugly stain on our nation’s past, and hopefully one day soon they will be relegated to the dustbin of history.