Will the Supreme Court Nix Montana’s Anti-Catholic ‘Blaine Amendment’?

Kathryn Jean Lopez

As a second-grader, Raelyn Sukhbir used to cry every night. She was being bullied “unmercifully” in the public school she was attending. Life at home was miserable because the poor girl was so anxious and despondent — which had her parents worried about how bad things might be all the rest of the time, when she wasn’t home. Raelyn “did not want to be around other kids and was clingy whenever we would visit friends,” her mother told lawyer Andrea Picciotti-Bayer. “She did not want to participate in any activities or sports.” Her father, a retired army veteran who was injured in Afghanistan, talked to the teachers and administrators, but there was no improvement.

Brittany and Kyle Sukhbir had heard good things about the nearby St. Mary’s Catholic school — that it had a “zero tolerance policy” against bullying. Picciotti-Bayer writes that “the Sukhbirs did not think that they could afford private school, but the daily bullying simply became too much for Raelyn to bear.” They contacted the school just before Christmas, and Raelyn spent a day trying on the school. “Every single teacher knew her name, and every student was excited to meet Raelyn and play with her,” her mother said.

Two years later, the girl is transformed. She’s not shy and reserved anymore, but outgoing. She fully participates in the life of the school, including sports. “St. Mary’s is teaching self-confidence and kindness,” her mother reports. She’s thriving academically, and even the Sukhbirs’ family life is better. “Now that Raelyn is no longer crying when she comes home from school, we can really enjoy being together,” Brittany says.

Brittany works as an office manager at a local physical-therapy clinic, and Kyle works in North Dakota on an oil field two weeks of every month. Their combined salaries would not cover tuition for Raelyn, now eight, and their son, five-year-old Wyatt. She used to think that “St. Mary’s was only for rich kids,” she says. “But I now know that that is 100 percent not the case.” Knowledge of tuition assistance from the school or other widely available helps from private and public sources could help save other families from similar situations. “My kid would not be the kid she is today if we did not have the scholarship supports to send her to St. Mary’s,” Brittany notes. Raelyn “really has flourished into an amazing child.”

Piccioti-Bayer interviewed Brittany Sukhbir and other parents of children benefiting from tuition assistance, for an amicus brief just filed at the U.S. Supreme Court by the Catholic Association Foundation. The brief is in support of a challenge to a decision by the Montana supreme court that religious schools cannot benefit from public tuition aids — not even from tax credits for people donating to private scholarship funds. (The Institute for Justice is representing moms of Montana.) The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Taxation, has the potential to remove the anti-Catholic Blaine amendments that remain in many state constitutions. Such a decision could change children’s lives in America.

Other parents profiled by Piccioti-Bayer include Christina and Justin Schye, who had sent three children to public schools. Their nine-year-old with Down syndrome needed something else, they concluded. His public-school situation was “traumatic.” By contrast, when he went to St. Francis school, some eighth-grade boys would wait for Kellan’s arrival every morning, giving him “hugs and high-fives” as he entered school. He was immediately a welcome part of the community, and his needs were attended to. If he needed extra time, including time for eating lunch, he would get it. School staff and families of students rallied for him when he competed in this first Special Olympics. (The teacher arranged the transportation, and parents even chipped in to get pizza for him and for all the three second-grade classes who came to cheer him on.) The flexibility and love at St. Francis for Kellan is a “huge blessing” for the whole Schye family. “We have peace of mind now that Kellan is where he belongs,” his mother says.

Some but not all of the parents Piccioti-Bayer interviewed are Catholic. Catholic schools serve all. In some settings, such as Montana, the students are mostly non-Catholic. Parents choose these schools because of they are staffed by educators with a missionary, vocational approach. The families Piccioti-Bayer talked with experienced religious education as the leaven it is — communities where human dignity is respected and served in gratitude for the gift of life.

It worth a prayer not only that this case winds up a win for religious liberty and school choice — for families across the country who shouldn’t be deprived of giving their children the best chance at a good life — but that it is a reinvigoration of Catholic education and our collective need for it. In their book Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America (2014), Notre Dame law professors Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett make the case that, statistically, when a Catholic school closes, social capital, “the web of connections and trust between people,” declines. Catholic schools have been closing, and we see the deterioration in our culture. Let’s do everything we can to ensure that families have access to the good ones in operation. A Supreme Court win here for these Montana families would be no small dose of hope for family life, freedom, and the health of our nation.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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