Moses v. Ruszkowski

New Mexico textbooks for kids

Every child has the right to a quality education. Accessing that right is already an uphill battle for students in New Mexico, especially for thousands of low-income and minority children. The problem is not new, and state legislators have been working to fix it. Over 100 years ago, before New Mexico even became a state, the territorial and state legislatures enacted laws to ensure that all children had equal access to quality textbooks, regardless of where they attend school. Ever since, the textbook law has benefited children, particularly thousands of low-income and minority students, many of whom live in rural areas with limited options for quality education. But now, their access to quality education is at risk because of anti-religious activists and a discriminatory state law.

A law designed to discriminate

In 2012, two anti-religious activists sued the state, arguing that the New Mexico textbook lending program violated the state constitution because it allows children from religious schools the same access to education materials as children in other schools. To defend their lawsuit, the anti-religious activists pointed to a discriminatory 19th century state law—designed to disadvantage New Mexico’s native Catholic citizens—called the Blaine Amendment. Across the country, Blaine Amendments have been used by anti-religious activists to keep religious organizations from participating in neutral, generally applicable, government programs on equal terms as everyone else. They have been used to try stopping children with disabilities from attending a school that meets their needs, to prevent schools from making their playgrounds safer, to keep food kitchens from helping the poor, and more.

Becket defends children seeking an education

Both the trial court and the New Mexico Court of Appeals protected the state textbook program, but the decision was appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court. In 2015, based on the Blaine Amendment, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that the state’s textbook program was unconstitutional. By its plain language, New Mexico’s Blaine Amendment prohibits the use of state funds toward “sectarian” or “private” schools. At the time of enactment, however, essentially all private schools were religious, and the law’s intention and effect were to promote religious discrimination. In 2017, Becket appealed the New Mexico Supreme Court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has recognized that Blaine Amendments arose from anti-religious bigotry.

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 7-2 ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, a similar case involving Missouri’s Blaine Amendment. The Trinity Lutheran ruling stated that a church school could not be excluded from a generally available public benefit simply because it was religious. Based on the Trinity Lutheran decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the New Mexico Supreme Court to reconsider its decision on the textbook lending program. The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral argument on May 7, 2018.

On December 13, 2018, the Court reversed its earlier ruling, acknowledging that Blaine Amendments are “tainted” by anti-Catholic sentiment, and concluding that New Mexico’s Blaine Amendment should be interpreted narrowly to avoid denying students state-approved textbooks and other learning materials simply because they attend a religiously affiliated school. The Court’s opinion rejects the activists’ arguments that the textbook lending program improperly aids religion stating, “The textbook loan program furthers New Mexico’s legitimate public interest in promoting education and eliminating illiteracy.” The textbook lending program was then reinstated.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Education: Religious schools should be able to participate in publicly available programs without discrimination.
  • Dismantling discriminatory state laws: While anti-religious laws from the mid-19th century remain in place, people of all faiths are at risk of being discriminated against.
  • Reinforcing precedent set by Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley: In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state of Missouri can’t prevent a religious school from participating in a publicly available program that provides shredded-tire resurfacing to make playgrounds safer for kids on equal footing with other schools.

Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal

In a case challenging the federal government’s restrictions on a controlled substance— hoasca tea —used in the ceremonies of a religious group, Becket’s amicus brief defended the constitutionality of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that provides accommodations for religious organizations. The Supreme Court held that the government had not shown under RFRA’s standard a sufficiently compelling governmental interest to ban the substance for religious use by this group. Nancy Hollander was counsel to the religious group.