WASHINGTON, D.C. – New Mexico kids won equal access to quality educational resources today, regardless of where they go to school. In Moses v. Ruszkowski, a group of activists sued the State of New Mexico to end a textbook program designed to ensure all students receive a quality education. The New Mexico Supreme Court’s ruling says students can’t be denied state-approved textbooks and other learning materials simply because they attend a religiously affiliated school. The decision comes after the 2017 Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer.
New Mexico is ranked lowest of all 50 states in terms of education. The textbook lending program seeks to lift the state’s literacy levels by ensuring that all children have equal access to quality textbooks. The program especially benefits low-income and minority students living in rural areas. But in 2012, activists sued the state arguing that the textbook lending program violates the state constitution because students at religiously affiliated schools can participate on equal footing with all other students. Today’s court ruling rejects the activists’ arguments, stating, “The textbook loan program furthers New Mexico’s legitimate public interest in promoting education and eliminating illiteracy.”
“In shutting the book on religious discrimination, the New Mexico Supreme Court has opened access to quality textbooks for all students,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is defending the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools (NMANS) and the state’s textbook program. “All kids deserve an education free from discrimination.”
The lawsuit relied on a discriminatory 19th century state law—called a Blaine Amendment—that has been used in New Mexico and across the country to keep religious organizations from participating in government programs on the same terms as everyone else. For example, activists have used Blaine Amendments to try to stop children with disabilities from attending schools that best meet their needs, to prevent schools from making their playgrounds safer, to stop food kitchens from helping the poor, and to close service providers that help former prisoners successfully reintegrate into society. The Court acknowledged the Blaine Amendments’ malicious history, noting that “New Mexico was caught up in the nationwide movement to eliminate Catholic influence from the school system.”
“New Mexico’s kids are better off today because the New Mexico Supreme Court rejected 19th Century religious discrimination,” said John Foreman, state director of the New Mexico Association of Non-public Schools.
Both the trial court and the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the textbook lending program, but in 2015 the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional based on the Blaine Amendment. In 2017 Becket appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Following a 7-2 ruling in Trinity Lutheran, a similar case involving Missouri’s Blaine Amendment, the Supreme Court ordered the New Mexico Supreme Court to reconsider its decision on the textbook lending program. Today’s decision reinstates the textbook lending program.