The Illinois law on whether religious schools can access taxpayer funds is pretty clear — they can’t, except in some specific circumstances where they use it indirectly.
A Supreme Court ruling Monday determined a Lutheran church in Columbia, Missouri can access the same public grants that allow public schools and nonprofits to resurface playgrounds.
The ruling, which is specific to Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center’s playground resurfacing effort, does not have an immediate effect on Illinois law, said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
But local religious school leaders say they wouldn’t turn their noses up at public funding if it became available to them, as it did for Trinity Lutheran.
“I’m sure all Catholic school principals would be happy to hear that,” said Claire Hatch, principal of Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Belleville. “We find any way we can to fund our programs. It would be nice to have (public funds) to help us out.”
The Illinois Constitution expressly forbids public funds from being used by any organization controlled by “any church or sectarian denomination whatever.” Donations from the state of any kind are also prohibited. In Missouri and more than 30 other states, the constitutional law is similar.
The Supreme Court ruling determined the state’s denial to Trinity Lutheran constituted religious discrimination because the church was otherwise qualified for the grant.
However, there are no ongoing court cases similar to the Trinity Lutheran case in Illinois, according to the ACLU spokesman.
If there were, a decision would depend on the facts involved in the case, not purely on the precedent set by the Supreme Court, Yohnka said.
A footnote in the decision says the case only involves express religious discrimination with respect to the playground resurfacing program, he added.
“These cases regarding religious funding are always highly fact-specific,” Yohnka said. “We just don’t know what that’s bound to look like as we go forward, whether it’s in Illinois or elsewhere.”
Hatch said Blessed Sacrament only receives public funding in the form of its free and reduced lunch program.
Notre Dame Academy in Belleville receives “a very small amount” of funding through Title I, a federal program to support schools with low-income students, Principal Linda Hobbs said.
Hobbs said the addition of public funds, like in the case of Trinity Lutheran, would “absolutely” help boost the school’s bottom line.
“I think that definitely all private schools in this area will be paying close attention to that,” Hobbs said.
But in a state like Illinois, which was approaching its third year without a budget Tuesday, the Blessed Sacrament principal said her school would not rely on grants from public entities.
“I don’t think we can rely on that type of funding. It would just open up a few more avenues,” Hatch said. “I’m still kind of leery of how much would even be available.”