After reviewing $844,000 worth of grants that were given by Polk County, Iowa to local Catholic schools a few years back, the Diocese of Des Moines said that it believes the grants complied with state law.
“The Roman Catholic Diocese of Des Moines has concluded that there is nothing improper associated with the technology grant,” the diocese said in a June 21 statement.
It added that after reviewing the relevant facts and law involving the Polk County grant, “We agree completely with Polk County that the Community Development Grant was entirely legal and proper.”
Iowa state law says that government officials “shall not appropriate, give, or loan public funds to, or in favor of, an institution, school, association or object which is under ecclesiastical or sectarian management or control.”
In 2011, after the Polk County Board of Supervisors learned that it could not give grant money directly to church-affiliated schools, Catholic school supporters formed a separate corporation through which to route the grant money.
Called Education for the 21st Century, the corporation is now defunct. During its two years in operation, 100 percent of its reported revenue came from Polk County grants, according to the Des Moines Register.
The grant money was taken from gambling revenue accrued by the Prairie Meadows Casino and Hotel.
The Polk County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 in 2012 to give $400,000 to the corporation. The year after, the board approved $444,000 to the corporation.
With the money, new technology equipment was bought for St. Anthony, St. Joseph, St. Augustin, St. Pius X, St. Theresa, Christ the King, Holy Trinity, Holy Family, and Sacred Heart schools. The money was used to purchase iPads, cameras, computers, projectors, and whiteboards.
“If Iowa taxpayer money was, in fact, intentionally funneled to religious schools, that is unacceptable and a misuse of the taxpayers' public dollars,” said Mark Stringer, executive director of ACLU Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register.
However, county supervisors have defended financial assistance to Catholic schools. They say that going forward, such assistance can be given directly to the schools, thanks to a 2017 Supreme Court ruling which held that states cannot discriminate against religious schools by making them ineligible for non-religious amenity funding programs.
The Diocese of Des Moines stressed that the Catholic Church “did not manage or control the foundation that received the grant,” and that grant money was not used for religious purposes, but “for purchasing learning technology that was provided to Christian and parochial schools.”
The diocese noted that Catholic schools already receive state funding for transportation and textbooks, “in recognition of the fact that families choosing a religious education are taxpayers.”
“Providing this form of support that does not directly advance religion is entirely consistent with the law,” the diocese said. “In fact, as the US Supreme Court has recognized, a law or policy that expressly discriminates against an otherwise eligible recipient and disqualifies them from a public benefit because of their religious character, is a clear violation of the United States Constitution.”
The former legal advisor for Polk County’s School Board, Michael O’Meara, told the Des Moines Register that he had told the board that they could only support Catholic schools if they did so via an entity that was not under ecclesiastical control.
State Auditor Mary Mosiman said she will not review the case. Her chief of staff and legal counsel noted that the county attorney appeared to have been consulted and approved the grants.
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