Thomas C. Berg, school of law professor, and students listen as the Minnesota Supreme Court hears the State of Minnesota v. Clarence Bruce Beaulieu in the Frey Moot Courtroom on April 1, 2014 at the School of Law in downtown Minneapolis.

Religious Liberty Clinic Files Briefs in School Choice Cases

The University of St. Thomas School of Law Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic has filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in two cases in the Supreme Court of North Carolina involving a “school choice” program. The principal authors of the brief are Professor Thomas Berg, director of the clinic and one of the nation’s leading religious liberty scholar-advocates, and third-year law student James C. Kovacs.

Both cases, Hart v. State of North Carolina and Richardson v. State of North Carolina, involve challenges to a newly enacted state statute that provides money, in the form of Opportunity Scholarships, to low-income families to help offset the costs of education at a private school if they choose it. The plaintiffs raised several challenges to the statute, including that it allows families to use their scholarship money at religious schools that allegedly discriminate by considering religious affiliation in their employment or admissions policies. The amicus brief focuses on this issue, arguing that to strike down the program on this ground would create severe tensions with the religious freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. and North Carolina constitution: schools’ freedom to maintain their religious identity, and parents’ freedom to choose a school with such an identity.

The brief was filed on behalf of nine religious bodies and religious-liberty organizations, including the Catholic dioceses of Charlotte and Raleigh, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Legal Society and two nationwide organizations of Christian schools. It argues that a religious school may consider religious belief in hiring employees and admitting students for the legitimate purpose of maintaining its religious mission, and thus to exclude such a school from eligibility for the scholarship program violates the school’s and parents’ rights to freedom of religion, expression and association. The brief points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently allowed educational benefits for families who choose to use them at private religious schools.

The Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic offers four to six law students each year the opportunity to draft briefs in important religious liberty cases, typically on behalf of national civil liberties and religious organizations filing as amicus curiae.  The clinic gives students an intensive experience in formulating, writing and refining appellate arguments, with review by experienced advocates, and in the strategy of framing arguments by amici, who typically present distinctive information or issues that may benefit the judges deciding the case.

“I feel very blessed and privileged to have been able to participate in such a great clinic that provides its students with both valuable experience and the opportunity to help advance religious liberty,” Kovacs said. “This clinic has only reinforced with me that religious liberty is imperative to the human experience, and to further such a cause is worthy of a life’s pursuit.”

Read the brief here (identical brief in second case here).