Historic step forward in the realization of freedom of education in the US Supreme Court:

The Supreme Court of the United States has just proclaimed the support of the important principle of freedom of education. In the state of Montana parents will now be able to use public funds to freely choose an education in accordance with their values and their religious views.

The  Montana State Legislature –formed by the Montana State and the Montana House of representatives- approved a tax-credit program in 2015, with the objective to enable parents to choose the education of their choice despite their income.

The program helped parents of modest means do what more affluent parents can do: send their children to a school of their choice”, including religious inspired schools.  (Justice Alito, p.13)

However, the Montana’s Department of Revenue banned this proposed program arguing that it would infringe Montana’s Constitution, which restricts governments use of taxpayer money to fund activities carried out by religious groups. According to this prohibition, called the Blain Amendment, the government cannot use tax-payers money “ to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect or denomination”.

The Amendment discriminated them choosing a faith-based school and restricted their freedom of choice. Three mothers of children of the school Stillwater Christian School raised their voices against this discrimination and sued the Montana’s Department of Revenue in the State Court for not being able to use the scholarship funds to pay the tuition of their children.

Last Monday, 30 of June 2020, Supreme Court Justice Roberts proclaimed in his final decision on this case, that “the prohibition burdens not only religious schools but also the families whose children attend them “(p.19). He brought to our memories the “enduring American tradition” to support the rights of the parents to raise their children in a religious atmosphere. The US Constitution itself protects the freedom of choice of parents of sending their children to a faith-based schools.

In the precedent judicial instance, at the Montana’s Supreme Courts, the counterpart argued that shutting down the support for religious schools by saying that this reflects the “state interest in preserving funding for public schools” (Brieg for respondents 7). However, according to Justice Alito, the parents affected by this banner are among those who support through taxes the public schools system. So, it is more than just to give them an effective alternative to Public Schools.

The substance of the matter under discussion according to Dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor is not about the separation of church and state, but about the realisation of freedom of choice of education. The banning of this aid in Montana’s Constitution “imposed”, in words of Chief Justice Roberts, “a heavy burden on people on faith and their ability to educate their children in that faith”. Therefore, he declared the provision as unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment, in specific the Free Exercise Clause.

This judicial sentence of the Supreme Court is a landmark to guarantee the right of education. It fulfils the positive obligation the state has to promote plurality and freedom of choice for the full realization of the right to education.

María Teresa Gerns

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Histórico paso adelante por la libertad de enseñanza en la Corte Suprema de Estados Unidos:

La Corte Suprema de los Estados Unidos acaba de proclamar su apoyo acerca del importante principio de libertad de educación. A partir de ahora en el Estado de Montana los padres podrán usar fondos públicos para escoger libremente la educación de acuerdo con sus valores y opiniones religiosas.

En 2015 el poder legislativo del Estado de Montana aprobó un programa de créditos fiscales con el objetivo de posibilitar a los padres que escojan la educación de su elección a pesar de sus creencias. Este programa estaba especialmente enfocado a familias de bajos recursos.

“El programa ayudaba a padres de recursos modestos a hacer lo que padres con más recursos podían hacer: mandar a sus hijos a un colegio de su elección”, incluidos las escuelas basadas en la fe (Justice Alito).

Sin embargo, el Departamento de hacienda de Montana prohibió este programa, argumentando que infringía la Constitución de Montana, la cual impide al gobierno prestar ayuda a grupos religiosos. Según esta prohibición, conocida como Blain Amendment, el gobierno no puede usar fondos públicos para “ayudar a cualquier iglesia, escuela, academia, semanario, facultad, universidad u otra institución literaria o científica, que está controlada total o parcialmente por cualquier iglesia, secta o denominación”.

La enmienda discriminaba a las familias que escogían escuelas de inspiración religiosa, al no poder estas acceder a financiación pública. Tres madres de niños del colegio Stillwater Christian School alzaron sus voces en contra de esta discriminación y demandaron al estado de Montana por impedirles el acceso a los fondos públicos para poder escoger la educación de sus hijos con independencia de su poder adquisitivo.

El lunes pasado, el 30 de junio de 2020, el juez Roberts ha proclamado en la decisión final de la sentencia, que “la prohibición no solo impone una carga a los colegios religiosos, sino también a las familias, cuyos hijos atienden dichas escuelas”. Nos lleva a la memoria “la perdurable tradición americana” de asegurar el derecho de los padres de educar los hijos en un ambiente religioso. La misma Constitución americana protege la libertad de elección que los padres pueden ejercer mandando a sus hijos a colegios religiosos.

En la anterior instancia judicial, en la Corte Suprema de Montana, la contraparte arguyó que el cierre de este programa de ayudas a escuelas religiosas se justificaba debido a la prioridad de preservar esta financiación para la escuela pública (Brieg for respondents 7). No obstante, según el juez de la Corte Suprema Alito, los padres que se han visto afectados por la delimitación son los mismos que contribuyen al mantenimiento de las escuelas públicas a través del pago de impuestos. Por ello, es más que justo darles una alternativa a los Colegios públicos.

El fondo de la cuestión según la opinión discrepante de la juez Sonia Sotomayor no es sobre la separación iglesia y estado, sino sobre la realización de la libertad de elección educativa. La restricción de la ayuda escolar por la Constitución de Montana “impone”, en palabras del juez presidente Roberts, “una pesada carga sobre personas de fe y sobre su capacidad de educar a sus hijos en aquella fe”. Por lo tanto, declaró la provisión como inconstitucional, por violar la Primera Enmienda de la constitución, y en concreto la cláusula sobre la Cláusula de la Libre Expresión.

Esta sentencia judicial de la Corte Suprema es un hito importante para garantizar el derecho de educación. Con ella se cumple le obligación positiva que tiene el Estado de promover la pluralidad y la libertad de elección para el pleno ejercicio del derecho de educación.

María Teresa Gerns

2017, USA and the Human Rights Council

IMG_6498In the context of the 35th session of the Human Rights Council, the Graduate Institute, together with the United States Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, organized last Tuesday, 6 of June, an event in which Ms. Nikki Haley, the U.S Ambassador to the UN, talked about her country’s position regarding human rights. Early that morning, she had already addressed said Council and stressed the importance of supporting the participation of civil society and of adopting a resolution on Venezuela.

Despite its title, the lecture revolved around two main points: the negative aspects of the Human Rights Council’s functioning and the ways in which these aspects should be improved, leaving little time for discussing about the US.

According to Ms. Haley, the Council is following the path of its predecessor, the Human Rights Commision. The latter lost the world’s trust due to its failure to act whenever human rights were being violated, and was therefore replaced. Currently, the Council’s lack of intervention in the greatest violations of our time undermines its credibility, reinforcing the suspicion that it is not a good investment of time and money. To prove her point, the Ambassador mentioned the cases of Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, China and Zimbabwe, among others. She justified her special concern with the Venezuelan situation by explaining that every major conflict first starts with singular human rights’ violations, and then escalates wildly.

Through these examples, Ms. Haley showcased how the Council puts political interests ahead of its duty of being the world’s advocate on human rights. Consequently, she mentioned three minimum changes that she deems necessary. First of all, violators should not be able to hold seats in the Council – and she cited the case of Cuba, who states that its belonging to the Council proves its respect to human rights. – Therefore, she calls for a change in the selection and reelection of members. Secondly, item 7 of the Council’s Agenda should be removed, since having a particular provision for Israel does not place countries on equal footing. Finally, (and this is something the Ambassador stressed through the whole lecture) abuses must always be called out, and violators must always be condemned.

Before the end there was a time for questions, which the public seized for bringing up some of the US’ most controversial issues, such as its actions during the Cold War, its current relationship with Saudi Arabia or its refusal to accept refugees. Struggling to remain firm, and sometimes beating around the bush, Ms. Haley stated that the US is trying to lead and therefore needs to deal with all countries, even if they are violators of human rights, although this does not mean that they should not be publicly condemned. She also affirmed that the US is strong on human rights, and that that is shown though its budget. Moreover, she proclaimed that the Council must change and that, if this is not the case, the US will pursue the protection of human rights outside of it.
Perhaps this was the most remarkable statement since, when facing the question of wether or not the US will withdraw from the Council –and being forced to commit and say yes or no – the Ambassador said she would not commit: “We have to wait and see”.

Eugenia de Lacalle