A small Catholic school in Washington County is at the center of a legal feud over whether it should receive state aid.
St. Augustine School in Richfield has fewer than 70 students in K4 through high school. It considers itself “traditional Catholic” but is not part of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Just a few miles away and within the same school district is St. Gabriel Catholic School.
St. Gabriel Catholic School currently receives state aid for busing, and St. Augustine School does not.
Wisconsin law provides busing benefits to just one school per religious denomination in a school district.
St. Augustine claims it is not just another Catholic school, and therefore it should receive aid as well.
"They're considering us the same, and we don't consider ourselves the same," said School Board Chairman Tim Zignago.
St. Augustine's lawyer, Anthony Lococo, claims the state government is violating the religious liberty of the school.
"They are forcing St. Augustine to choose between calling itself Catholic and receiving state aid," Lococo said. "The Supreme Court has indicated that is penalty under the free exercise of religion."
The school has lost two rounds at the federal level with the courts ruling no religious bias.
The attorney for the state told TODAY'S TMJ4,
"Those courts determined that the district and superintendent's actions in enforcing the provisions of the school transportation statute complied with the United States Constitution."
An attorney for the Friess Lake School District sent TODAY’S TMJ4 this statement:
“In 2016, St. Augustine School and Joseph and Amy Forro, the parents of three St. Augustine students, filed a lawsuit against the Friess Lake School District and then Superintendent of Public Instruction Anthony Evers.
"In their lawsuit, St. Augustine and the Forros asserted that the District and the Superintendent violated their constitutional rights and violated the state’s transportation statutes by denying St. Augustine its proposed attendance area that it requested for transportation purposes.
"As a result of the decisions by the District and the Superintendent, the Forros were also denied payment of certain transportation funds for their three children. St. Augustine and the Forros alleged that in denying these school transportation benefits, the District and the Superintendent violated their constitutional rights to freely exercise their religion and equal protection under the law and excessively entangled the state in religious matters.
"In accordance with Wisconsin case law, the District believed that the relevant statute precluded the District from approving St. Augustine’s proposed attendance area because it overlapped with the previously approved attendance area for another Catholic school in the District, St. Gabriel. The Superintendent agreed with the District’s conclusion.
"Both the federal district court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the District and the Superintendent. Those courts determined that the District and Superintendent’s actions in enforcing the provisions of the school transportation statute complied with the United States Constitution, specifically, the First Amendment Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses and the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause.
"On March 6, 2019, St. Augustine School and the Forros filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, seeking a review of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in favor of the District and the Superintendent. The Petition names current Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, in her official capacity as Superintendent of Public Instruction, in place of Governor Evers.”
Stay with TODAY'S TMJ4 as the Supreme Court decides whether to take up the case.