(CN) — Michigan can reimburse private schools the costs of complying with health and safety mandates, the state’s highest court ruled in a split decision Monday upholding the constitutionality of a state law.
The Michigan Association of School Boards, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and 11 other plaintiffs sought an injunction against the state to stop reimbursement payments for items like background checks, vehicle inspections and asbestos control measures.
In 2018, the Court of Claims ruled that $5 million appropriated in the state budget to cover private schools’ health and safety costs violated the state Constitution because some of the funds would pay the employees of those schools.
Later that year, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the decision, but the Court of Claims found another constitutional flaw: the funds helped private schools stay in business.
On Monday in a 3-3 vote, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals’ ruling that the budget items are constitutional as long as they pass a three-part test: Funds must be incidental at most to educational services, must not constitute a primary function for the schools to survive and must not cause “excessive religious entanglement.”
The decision was split because Justice Elizabeth Clement did not participate due to her status as the former chief legal counsel for former Governor Rick Snyder.
Justice Steven Markman wrote that the state funds were permissible because they did not support educational services at the private schools.
He disagreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments that complying with state mandates is a necessary element of a private school’s existence and that funds are impermissibly paying employee salaries.
“To the extent that the MCL 388.1752b indirectly reimburses nonpublic-school employees for complying with state health, safety, and welfare mandates, those funds are necessarily not being used for employment regarding educational matters,” Markman wrote.
He added that the appropriation law “only exercises the ‘police powers’ of the state on behalf of the ‘health, safety, and welfare’ of nonpublic-school students, which is not proscribed by our Constitution.
Justice Megan Cavanagh, writing for reversal, said that the state funding “clearly violates” the state constitution.
“For a nonpublic school, or any other organization in Michigan, complying with general health, safety, and welfare laws is just a cost of doing business,” she wrote. “And to say that paying a portion of a teacher’s salary does not support that teacher’s employment is a ‘forced’ construction, to say the least.”
The state’s high court remanded the case to the Court of Claims for an analysis of “whether the Department of Education has improperly administered the statute by purporting to reimburse nonpublic schools for educational services.”
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