St. Augustine v. Underly

Case Name: St. Augustine School v. Jill Underly, Superintendent

Type of Case: Religious Freedom

Court: Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals

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: Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on December 20, 2021 in favor of St. Augustine School.

Press Releases

FEDERAL COURT OF APPEALS RULES DPI VIOLATED STATE LAW WHEN DENYING TRANSPORTATION BENEFITS TO PRIVATE SCHOOL FAMILIES

December 21, 2021 | A three-judge panel of the federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in St. Augustine v. Underly, a lawsuit first filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) in 2016, that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) violated state law when denying transportation benefits to families attending St. Augustine School, an independent Catholic school in Washington County.

WISCONSIN SUPREME COURT TO HEAR ARGUMENTS IN WILL RELIGIOUS LIBERTY LAWSUIT

February 26, 2021 | The Wisconsin Supreme Court granted a request from the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Thursday, to consider a question of Wisconsin state law in St. Augustine v. Taylor, a religious liberty lawsuit first filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) in 2016.

U.S. SUPREME COURT ORDERS SEVENTH CIRCUIT TO RECONSIDER DECISION IN WILL RELIGIOUS LIBERTY CASE

July 6, 2020 | The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s (WILL) religious liberty lawsuit, St. Augustine v. Taylor, was remanded by the United States Supreme Court back to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for reconsideration.

WILL ASKS U.S. SUPREME COURT TO REVIEW RELIGIOUS LIBERTY CASE

March 14, 2019 | WILL is asking the United States Supreme Court to review St. Augustine v. Taylor, a suit that poses critical questions on the relationship between religious liberty and government benefits. In 2016, WILL filed a suit on behalf of St. Augustine School, an independent Catholic school in Hartford, Wisconsin, against the Friess Lake School District and the state Department of Public Instruction because they were denying their students transportation rights by determining the meaning of the word “Catholic.”

WILL SUES SUPERINTENDENT EVERS FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM VIOLATIONS

April 12, 2016 | On behalf of a private school and the parents of three children who attend the school, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) has filed a lawsuit against Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and Friess Lake School District for unconstitutionally declaring “who or what is Catholic.”

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 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 this case in state court in August of 2016. It was moved to federal court where the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin ruled against St. Augustine in June 2017. In October 2018, a three-judge panel at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court ruling 2-1. In a vigorous dissent Judge Kenneth Ripple warned that the decision “raises haunting concerns about the future health of the Religion Clauses [of the First Amendment] in this circuit.” The decision was also criticized in an article in the June 2019 edition of the Harvard Law Review.

Then, WILL sought review at the United States Supreme Court in March 2019. The Court granted certiorari, vacated the decision of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and remanded the case back to the Seventh Circuit in July 2020 in light of the 5-4 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue held that a rule barring families from using a tax-credit scholarship to attend religious schools violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

On remand, following supplemental briefing, the Seventh Circuit certified a question relating to the interpretation of Wisconsin’s transportation statutes to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an opinion on the question on July 2, 2021 and the case returned to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Current Status: The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision, authored by Judge Diane Wood, makes clear that as a result of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 2021 decision, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction violated state law when it denied the families at St. Augustine school transportation benefits. The Court did not finally resolve constitutional questions of religious liberty in their decision.