U.S. Supreme Court Orders Seventh Circuit to Reconsider Decision in WILL Religious Liberty Case

Case against DPI will be reassessed in light of Espinoza v. Montana

The News: 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. This lawsuit poses critical questions on the relationship between religious liberty and government benefits – in particular, whether a government entity can define who is and who is not “Catholic.”

WILL sought review at the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2019. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the decision of the Seventh Circuit, and remanded the case in light of the decision in Espinoza v. Montana on July 2. Espinoza further explained how the First Amendment limits the government’s ability to penalize religious adherents.

The Legal Issue: Wisconsin provides transportation aid to qualifying private school students as long as there is not an overlapping attendance area between private schools that are affiliated with one another, or more specifically, affiliated with the same sponsoring group. In this case, DPI and Friess Lake School District denied St. Augustine students busing rights because there is an Archdiocesan Catholic school in the attendance area.

But St. Augustine is independent and unaffiliated with the Archdiocese. In this case, Friess Lake and DPI are determining the definition of Catholic and withholding government benefits until St. Augustine agrees not to call itself “Catholic.”

In Court: WILL filed the 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.

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 on July 2 in light of the 5-4 decision in Espinoza v. MontanaEspinoza v. Montana held that a rule barring families from using a tax-credit scholarship to attend religious schools violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

Quotes: WILL President and General Counsel Rick Esenberg said, “St. Augustine and its families were denied a public benefit because they believe they are called to follow their faith in the Catholic tradition, but in a different way from and outside the auspices of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. They were penalized for what they believe. Our Constitution does not permit that.”

President of the Board of St. Augustine School Tim Zignego said, “We are grateful and encouraged that the Supreme Court has asked the Seventh Circuit to give this another look. Whether schools and parents receive state aid should not depend on the way the school defines its religious identity.”

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