St. Augustine v. Taylor

Case Name: St. Augustine School v. Carolyn Stanford Taylor, Superintendent

Type of Case: Religious Freedom

Court: Washington County Circuit Court; E.D. Wisconsin District Court

Case Number: 2016-CV-225 (State Circuit Court); 2016-CV-575 (Federal District Court); 17-2333 (Seventh Circuit)

Filed On: April 8, 2016

Current Status: Case removed to federal court; Seventh Circuit upheld dismissal of federal claims; certiorari petition filed

Wisconsin law, recognizing the importance of keeping children safe, requires local school districts to provide transportation for all children who reside in the district, even if they go to private schools.  That law also prohibits private schools in the same religious denomination from having overlapping attendance zones – two Lutheran schools in the same district, for example, have to “split” the district between them.  But in order to keep the government from being entangled in thorny questions of what it really means to be “Lutheran” (or any religion), the Wisconsin Supreme Court has interpreted the law to apply to schools that operate within the same legal organization – religious or not.

However, the Friess Lake School District and the Department of Public Instruction have decided to ignore this requirement.  Instead, they lumped St. Augustine School – which teaches with a “catholic” mission but operates independently from actual archdiocesan schools – together with a different archdiocesan school in the district, denying bussing to St. Augustine children.

WILL filed a lawsuit in state court, arguing that Friess Lake and the DPI are violating state law and the First Amendment by trying to decide what is and isn’t catholic.  The defendants removed the case to federal court, where the judge dismissed our federal claims and remanded the state claims to state court.  We appealed, and the Seventh Circuit panel affirmed 2-1.  We filed an en banc petition asking the entire Seventh Circuit to hear the case, and when that was denied, filed our first certiorari petition to the United States Supreme Court.

The issue became more complex when the Friess Lake School District merged with the neighboring Richfield School District to form Holy Hill Area School District.  While Richfield has previously recognized St. Augustine’s attendance zone, the combined district reversed course.  We are appealing that decision through the DPI.