Panel Finds No Religious Bias in Wisconsin Bus Rules

CHICAGO (CN) – A Wisconsin school district did not discriminate against a Catholic school on religious grounds when it refused to provide bus service because it is the second Catholic school in the area, the Seventh Circuit ruled Thursday.

Under Wisconsin law, the state is required to offer school bus service to private-school students, but only to one private school associated with the same religious or secular group per geographic attendance area.

For example, the state must provide bus service for one Catholic school in a certain area or one Montessori school, but not two – even if the second school is not owned by the same entity.

So when St. Augustine School in Friess Lake School District applied for bus service for its students, describing itself as an “independent, private Catholic school,” the superintendent rejected the application because the district already provided bus service for St. Gabriel School in the same district.

St. Augustine sued the state over the denial, arguing that it is distinct from the diocesan schools, even if it also identifies as Catholic.

But a federal judge rejected the school’s claims, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed Thursday.

“The reason why St. Augustine cannot demand services within its desired attendance zone is not because it is a Catholic school; it is because – by its own choice – it professes to be affiliated with a group that already has a school in that zone,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood said, writing for the court’s majority.

The superintendent did not make any analysis of the school’s religious dogma when making his decision, but simply took St. Augustine’s description of itself as a “Catholic school” at face value, the court found.

“Wisconsin is not denying [students’ parents] a transit subsidy because they are Catholic or because they seek to send their children to Catholic school. It funds transportation for all of the Catholic families who send their children to St. Gabriel. The problem for St. Augustine is not that it is Catholic; it is that it is second in line,” Wood said.

U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Kanne joined Wood’s opinion.

But Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth Ripple dissented, saying, “The court’s selective use of the term ‘Catholic’ rests on the assumption that, for purposes of our free exercise analysis, a single term, even when culled from its context, can describe accurately the religious values and aspirations of an individual or a group of individuals.”

He emphasized that St. Augustine is completely independent from St. Gabriel, and said the majority’s ruling will create more confusion as society’s religious beliefs become more pluralistic.

“What will it do when individuals identifying as Missouri Synod Lutherans seek to establish a facility separate from those identifying as Evangelical Lutherans? Will Methodists and United Methodists experience the same problem? As the ecumenical movement grows and individuals simply identify as ‘Christian,’ how will the court deal with the differences that still remain?” Ripple asked.

Wood dismissed these concerns in her opinion as a “parade of horribles.”

“We assume that the Missouri Synods would be entitled to argue that they are a different group from the Evangelicals, that the Orthodox Jews are entitled to argue that they are a different group from Reformed Jews, and that Shi’a Muslims can urge that they are different from Sunnis. We are content to save those cases for another day,” Wood said.

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