The Supreme Court’s welcome surprise

Archbishop Aquila

Right in the middle of the Church’s celebration of the annual Fortnight for Freedom, good news came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving religious freedom that should inspire people of faith. The court ruled, in keeping with the First Amendment, that Trinity Lutheran school could not be barred from a state-run playground resurfacing program because it was a religious institution.

You might be thinking, “What does a playground have to do with religious freedom?” The details of the case are revealing. Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center is a preschool located in Columbia, Missouri that wanted to improve the safety of its playground, which consisted of gravel and grass. It applied in 2012 to a state program that provides grants to buy shredded, recycled tires and was rejected because it is affiliated with a church.

That year there were 44 applicants to the program and based on its proposal Trinity Lutheran’s application was ranked fifth best. And yet, the state of Missouri disqualified the preschool, citing its Blaine Amendment. These anti-Catholic amendments were added to more than 30 state’s legal codes – including Colorado’s – in the late 1800s and early 1900s to prevent state funds from going to Catholic schools in favor of the Protestant-dominated public schools.

The cultural force behind these amendments was the “Know-Nothing” movement, which fomented fear of Catholics as papal agents plotting to take over the country and immigrants as competitors for jobs. They earned their nickname by replying, “I know nothing,” when they were asked about their political beliefs. Among their objectives were to prevent Catholics and other immigrants from being elected for political office and denying them jobs in the private sector.

Things have improved since those days, but it is still not that case that people of faith always receive the same benefits that are publicly available to the rest of society, without being forced to check their faith at the door. Take, for instance, the Little Sisters of the Poor, whom the federal government tried to force to provide contraception through its Health and Human Services mandate.

At an even more local level, one only need to look at the Douglas County school voucher case for a recent example of this discriminatory treatment. Citing our state’s Blaine Amendment, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that the county could not provide scholarships to low-income students who wanted to attend a religious school. Rather than treating students who wish to attend religious schools the same as those who choose to attend public schools, the court ruled against the program. States with Blaine amendments use it as an excuse to override a low-income parents desire to choose the school their child attends. The implication of the court’s ruling is that they know better than parents what would be best for their children. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court has asked the Colorado Supreme Court to revisit the Douglas County case, following its Trinity Lutheran decision.

When he visited the U.S. in September 2015, Pope Francis rightly noted that “various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or […] try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square ….” Every Catholic has a right to speak in the public square and to contribute the gifts of their faith to the common good!

As we celebrate the birth of our country, let us all strive to protect and promote the valuable contribution of faith to our nation by living out our faith in the public square and through the witness of our personal holiness. Let us support one of the inalienable freedoms guaranteed by our constitution – religious freedom. May we imitate the example of St. Thomas More, who was “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” May God bless our country and strengthen it in protecting religious freedom!

Featured image by Joe Ravi via Wikipedia

COMING UP: In new Denver school, Byzantine spirituality meets Montessori method

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.- With the goal of encountering children on a more personal level to meet their academic and spiritual needs, a Montessori school influenced by the Byzantine Catholic tradition is opening in Denver, Colorado.

Pauline Meert, who co-founded Sophia Montessori Academy along with Irene O’Brien, said the two “wanted to combine Montessori and Catholicism because it just made so much sense.”

Meert said the school aims to help children fulfill their God-given potential, and that “the Montessori message really makes that possible for each child, not just for a classroom as a whole, but for each individual.”

Students in Montessori schools work in periods of uninterrupted time – ideally three hours – having the freedom to choose from an established range of options. The Montessori Method uses hands-on techniques in presenting concepts to individual children, rather than a group oriented, lecture-based approach to learning. The student’s involvement in his or her own work then gives the teacher the freedom to spend time with each child and cater to each of their needs.

Sophia Montessori of Denver is in its final stages of its development, pending licensing and a few business inspections. But classes for children aged between three and six are expected to start in the fall of this year, and both Meert and O’Brien hope the school, currently with 11 families enrolled, will grow in number and into the high school level.

When asked about the origin of the school’s idea, Meert discussed her connection to children and her dream helping bring about a child’s full potential. She began her Montessori training in high school, and later envisioned Catholic teaching and the Montessori Method together.

Meert said the school has been four years in the making, but that she added the Byzantine spirituality aspect within the past year after she became a parishioner at Holy Protection Parish in Denver.

“The Byzantine faith is going to be the foundation,” she said, noting that the day will begin with a form of the Jesus prayer.

Montessori schools often begin the day with the “silence game,” in which children learn how to be calm and quiet in a time period of about 30 seconds to two minutes. Many schools have interpreted this freely, but she expressed a desire to tie this into the Byzantine’s Jesus Prayer.

“The beauty about being Byzantine is that we do that through the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on us, your children,’ she said, “You know because it’s kind of hard to call them sinners right away.”

The school will also have the kissing of icons and will teach according to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

“The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a very hands-on way of teaching the children about who Jesus is in time and space: through the parables, through infancy narratives, and through learning the nomenclature of the church.”

Children want to be a part of the world of adults and understand the liturgy, she said, and so the teachers aim to give them direct experiences related to the tabernacle and liturgical seasons.

“If we just tell them to be quiet and read a book during mass and during liturgy then we are not meeting their needs. They just want to know, they just want to be a part, they want to be welcomed by the church.”

She said many people would be surprised at the theological discussions she’s had with four-year-olds as well as the harmony created in the classroom. The environment is “surprisingly peaceful and calm, even though there are 20 three-to-six year-olds together.”

Meert also described the trust needed to allow children the freedom to make choices within prescribed limitations. “Three year-olds can do so much!” she said.

Meert defined this freedom as “not the freedom to do whatever you want, but…the freedom that Saint Thomas Aquinas talks about – having freedom within responsibility, within boundaries and within awareness of other people.”

In her interview with CNA, she also voiced her hope to establish afternoon classes for homeschooled kids and support for parents.

“We want to give parents tools and support. Some of the Montessori approach is common sense, but sometimes it’s a little trickier and parents just need extra support (or) someone to bounce ideas off of,” she said.

“We really want to be that support with those tools, and create a community that is often missing in our life.”

Featured image by Natalia Zhuravleva – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47443889