- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) - A religious-liberty advocacy group is challenging a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that the state’s practice of buying textbooks for private and religious schools is unconstitutional, their attorney said.

An Albuquerque law firm representing the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a motion for rehearing last month. The high court issued its ruling Nov. 12, reversing a previous Court of Appeals decision that said the practice was allowed.

The Becket Fund, based in Washington, D.C., is working on behalf of the New Mexico Association of Non-Public Schools. The group, which consists of 220 private schools, has expressed disappointment with the court decision.

Under the Instructional Material Law, the state Public Education Department is allowed to provide textbooks to public and private schools. Advocates of the program say that money for the books is governed by federal law because the funds are provided by federal mineral leases. But half of the money the federal government receives from use of public lands is paid to the state. Some goes to the state Education Department’s Instructional Material Bureau. Only non-religious textbooks can be provided by that department for classroom use.

Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund, told the Daily Times in Farmington (http://bit.ly/1MTMgPy) that the court was wrong to put additional conditions on the federal Mineral Lands Leasing Act funding.

“I think the Supreme Court erred in concluding that these were funds from state land and that it should recognize they are federal dollars that are being used in accordance with federal mandate,” Baxter said. “Any efforts to cut off certain categories of people from using those funds would be a violation of the federal constitution.”

Baxter also argued the state placing limits on the use of federal funds is a violation of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution. “You shouldn’t have any systems where certain categories of people are excluded from participating in public benefits because of their religious or educational choices,” Baxter said.

The New Mexico court can call another hearing or briefing on the decision.

The ruling stems from a 2012 lawsuit. Plaintiffs Cathy “Cate” Moses and Paul Weinbaum claimed that the state’s use of public money for private schools took money away from public schools.

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Information from: The Daily Times, http://www.daily-times.com

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