inside sources print logo
Get up to date New Hampshire news in your inbox

SCOTUS Ruling on Religious Ed Funding Affirms NH School Choice Approach

The U.S. Supreme Court is catching up to New Hampshire’s parental-rights approach to education, affirming that parents who use publicly-funded choice programs are free to choose religious schools.

In a 6-3 ruling released Tuesday, the court found Carson v. Makin that First Amendment protections for religious expression prohibit the government from discriminating against religious schools when states offer a school choice program to parents.

Maine has many rural communities — encompassing almost half of all the state’s 260 school districts — that cannot afford to support a middle school or high school. The state has long offered families tuition assistance so they can access education services for their children. But in 1981, Maine passed a law preventing parents from choosing a religious school.

The Supreme Court found that prohibition was unconstitutional.

“The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools—so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

While Tuesday’s ruling is a big change for some 18 states with similar bans, New Hampshire is at the forefront of school choice religious freedom. New Hampshire’s tuition assistance programs, and Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) can be used for any school, including religious schools.

“New Hampshire has no religious test for tuition aid or EFAs, so the ruling confirms New Hampshire’s position as correct,” said Drew Cline, chair of the state Board of Education.

According to Andrew Wimer with the Institute for Justice, New Hampshire changed its laws on tuition assistance last summer. Wimer said the ruling strengthens New Hampshire’s religious freedom against any future attack.

“Today’s ruling does not change anything in New Hampshire, but does ensure that if a future legislature were to put the same restrictions back in place it would likely be found unconstitutional,” he said.

The law change came after the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Croydon couple Dennis and Cathy Griffin who wanted to send their grandson to a private Catholic school, Mount Royal Academy.

“We are happy the legislature did the right thing in removing politics from school funding by allowing individual choice on how our tax dollars are applied to our children’s education,” said Dennis Griffin said last year. “Cathy and I feel Mount Royal Academy is the best choice for our grandson’s education and the government should not be restricting the use of our tax dollars from funding our choice.”

Croydon, a town of about 700 people, does not operate a middle school, instead giving families tuition money they can use to send their child to a school in another district. But Croydon’s School Board refused to give the family the money because Mount Royal is Catholic, and New Hampshire at the time still had an anti-Catholic law on the books

Most of the laws prohibiting states from using public money for private religious schools come from a anti-Catholic movement started in the 1870s by U.S. Rep. James Blaine, a powerful Republican from Maine. Blaine’s response to the immigration of Catholic and Jewish families from Europe was to endorse a nativist movement to make sure the immigrant schools would not get any funding.

At the time, many public schools taught a form of Protestant Christianity.

New Hampshire’s Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut applauded the ruling, saying it affirms New Hampshire in its commitment to religious freedom.

“Schools of all kinds – public, non-public, religious or non-religious – have the distinct duty and ultimate responsibility to provide the best education possible for their students. This Supreme Court ruling clarifies what has always been so — that we do not discriminate against anyone, period. This ruling will ensure that school choice remains an opportunity for every student throughout the nation, and that there will be equality available among all educational institutions. There is no place for discrimination here in New Hampshire.”

New Hampshire Democrats were largely silent on the decision, with no member of the state’s federal delegation making any mention of it. They also declined to respond to requests for comment.

Granite State Democrats have long opposed school choice, especially the funding for parents who want to send their children to religious schools. During the debate over EFAs last year, state Sen. Tom Sherman (D-Rye) complained, “There’s just no accountability to property taxpayers whose money is being used for private, religious and home school.” 

Sherman is now the Democratic nominee for governor.

Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) specifically cited the anti-Catholic “Blaine Amendment” language in the state constitution in her opposition to the EFA program.

“The New Hampshire Constitution prohibits taxpayer dollars from being directed to private or religious schools. Now more than ever, when legislators on both sides of the aisle have identified property taxpayer relief as a priority, it is difficult to understand why we would remove safeguards for the use of taxpayer dollars and ask hardworking Granite Staters to pay for the private education of other children and families.”

And former state Rep. Tamara Meyer Le (D-North Hampton) was removed from the House Education Committee in 2019 after a profanity-laced social media rant against private and religious education. “F*** private and religious schools,” Le wrote.

Progressive Leader Espitia Leaving House

State Rep. Manny Espitia (D-Nashua), an outspoken progressive caught in the center of the recent State House drama in the Democratic caucus, has announced he is not seeking reelection. 

“It breaks my heart to not be seeking another term, but I have some commitments that would make it very difficult to spend another two years in the State House,” Espitia wrote on social media.

Espitia made headlines earlier this year when he released a statement suggesting that Black men face heightened danger in the presence of police officers. Soon after, Democratic leadership appointed him to the Criminal Justice committee.

Espitia will remain president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats and said he is working to win back the House majority from the GOP. He said his decision for the coming election is not the end of his political career.

“I doubt this will be the last time I run for the State House, but I’ll be back someday,” Espitia wrote.

News of his departure inspired a show of support from his fellow Democrats.

State Rep. Catherine Rombeau (D-Bedford) thanked Espitia for his leadership and his mentorship.

“Thank you, Manny, for your service, your patience, and your good humor. I’ve learned so much from your leadership (and doubt I’d be trying again without having your encouragement over the years)!” she wrote.

 State Rep. Jan Schmidt (D-Nashua) blamed the $100 a year salary paid to New Hampshire lawmakers.

“If we could actually pay legislators a decent wage we could keep amazing people like you, Manny,” Schmidt wrote on Facebook. “You bring so much to the House and give the position all your heart, oh, what a marvelous Speaker you will be someday, or senator, or governor, or member of Congress. Your world is open and you have our love going forward. Thank you.”

Espitia started his political career working for Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess. Last year, when a neo-Nazi group began posting racist graffiti in his neighborhood, Espitia called them out. Someone claiming to be with the NSC 131 organization responded on social media:

“Anyone w/a name like ‘Manny Espitia’, State Rep or not, has no moral right to throw shade at any true (White) Nationalist New Hampshirite. You have no right to be here, you’re an occupier here & the days of these types trampling on New England are coming to an end,” the anonymous NSC 131 poster wrote.

A subsequent investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and federal law enforcement failed to result in any arrests.

Espitia has also had his own problematic moments. He became embroiled in the controversy surrounding State Rep. Nicole Klein Knight after she repeatedly used the “n-word” in an encounter with a young, Black activist in the State House. Klein Knight eventually called for security, an action Espitia found offensive.

“She engaged in degrading, bigoted behavior against a young Black man,” Espitia wrote in a public statement, “eventually calling security on him, despite being fully cognizant of the heightened dangers Black men face in this country in the presence of law enforcement.”

After the anti-cop comments were reported by NHJournal, Espitia issued an apology. He also blamed NHJournal for the controversy, and then-House Minority Leader Robert Renny Cushing (D-Hampton) ordered House Democrats to boycott NHJournal in retaliation for the reporting.

Espitia did not offer any explanation as to why, a few months later, he did an about-face and apologized to Klein Knight.

“On Feb. 2, I accused her of calling House security as retaliation against a young man. She has explained that she had been genuinely scared for her safety and I apologize for accusing her of such action,” Espitia wrote in the apology issued last month.

And Espitia also declined to join his fellow Hispanics who have publicly denounced U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan and U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas for embracing the “racist” border policies of the Trump administration, in particular Title 42. After Hassan made a campaign video in front of the Trump-built border wall, prominent members of the state’s Hispanic community like state Rep. Maria Perez (D-Milford) and Eva Castillo of the MIRA Coalition resigned from the New Hampshire Democratic Latino Caucus in response.

Espitia has yet to publicly criticize his fellow Democrats over their new tough-on-illegal-immigration stance.

Espitia Apology to Klein Knight Reignites Racial Tensions Among Dems

A long-simmering feud between New Hampshire Democrats and progressives flared again this week, and it featured the same political figures who split the caucus months ago.

In an unexplained turn of events, state Rep. Manny Espitia, (D-Nashua), issued a public apology this week to state Rep. Nicole Klein Knight for accusing her of endangering the life of a Black Democratic activist. 

“On Feb. 2, I accused her of calling House security as retaliation against a young man. She has explained that she had been genuinely scared for her safety and I apologize for accusing her of such action,” Espitia wrote in the apology issued Wednesday.

Espitia did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday, and Klein Knight declined to comment when reached.

The saga began in January when Klein Knight confronted teen activist Jonah Wheeler in the State House and unleashed a verbal screed that included repeated use of the “n-word.” (Wheeler is Black.) She claimed she was attempting to confront what she believed were antisemitic statements and attitudes among BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) members of the progressive community. During the encounter, which she initiated, Klein Knight called security, claiming she feared for her own safety.

A group of BIPOC progressives responded by releasing a letter publicizing the incident and demanding an apology. The House Democratic Caucus leadership denounced Klein Knight and removed her from committee assignments.

The incident was followed by weeks of charges and countercharges, with progressives accusing traditional Democrats of racism, and in turn being accused of harboring antisemitic attitudes. Amid the political melee, Espitia accused Klein Knight of putting Wheeler’s life in danger simply by calling the police because, Espitia suggested, police officers are racists who present an inherent threat to people of color.

“She engaged in degrading, bigoted behavior against a young Black man, eventually calling security on him, despite being fully cognizant of the heightened dangers Black men face in this country in the presence of law enforcement,” Espitia said at the time. In the ensuing backlash, Espitia apologized. And despite his anti-police attitudes, he was tapped by House Democratic leaders to replace Klein Knight on the Criminal Justice committee.

It was an ugly series of confrontations the caucus appeared to have moved passed in the wake of the death of House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing in March. Then came Espitia’s apology, reopening the wounds.

Wheeler said Thursday that Espitia’s apology does not make sense, especially coming months after the original controversy.

“It’s inconsistent with the facts,” Wheeler said.

Alissandra Rodríguez-Murray, a progressive activist and spokesperson for the BIPOC Leaders and Organizers group that issued the first denunciation of Klein Knight, called Espitia’s apology disappointing.

“Rep. Klein Knight is still on her rampage against BIPOC organizers yet apparently, we were the ones causing party division. Really shows who @NHHouseDems *actually* care about (hint…it’s not Black and Brown people),” she tweeted.

Rodríguez-Murray has referred to Jewish people as “termites” on Twitter.

Asma Elhuni of the progressive action group Race Forward also called out Espitia for his apology.

“You have chosen to apologize to a White woman for trying to call security on a harmless young Black man legitimizing her racist fear of Black men. Do better! Siding with White fear vs naming racist behavior is called anti-Blackness!”

Espitia issued his apology as president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats. In February, using the same position as head of the Young Democrats, he issued a statement revoking the group’s endorsement of Klein Knight.

According to sources familiar with the situation, Klein Knight and others in the Democratic Jewish community have been pushing for Espitia to meet with them for months. Espitia indicated in his statement this week that dangers to the Jewish community in New Hampshire are a real concern.

“The Jewish community is experiencing a higher rate of anti-semitism in the past 2 years, and it is happening here in New Hampshire,” Espitia wrote.

Wheeler is a member of Rights and Democracy, RAD, as is state Rep. Maria Perez.

Perez was forced to apologize last year after she shared the statement “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free,” on social media. It is a slogan used by the Iranian-backed Hamas terrorist organization to call for Israel’s destruction. The resulting controversy ended with Perez being booted from her leadership position.

Klein Knight has said RAD members took up a harassment campaign against her for criticizing Perez. That was the context for the January confrontation between Wheeler and Klein Knight.

Espitia himself has dealt with racism. Last year, the white supremacist group NSC 131 targeted Espitia with threats.

It is unclear how returning to this incident helps maintain unity inside the caucus, which is already facing a difficult political environment in November.

Omar to Keynote NH Young Democrats’ Event, Despite History of Anti-Semitism

One of the speakers scheduled to appear at a New Hampshire Young Democrats event in Manchester Friday night is best known for speaking out about Israel, foreign policy and the Jews. And not in a good way.

For reasons unknown — the NH Young Democrats have declined multiple requests for comment — notorious Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar will be one of the keynote speakers at their Granite Slate Awards event, campaigning on behalf of fellow progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Omar has been a member of Congress for less than two years, and already she’s been pressured into making repeated public apologies for comments her fellow Democrats describe as “vile, anti-Semitic slurs.” Her insults toward Jews have been so offensive that House Democrats drafted a resolution condemning her anti-Semitism specifically, until pressure from progressives inside her party forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi to replace it with a watered-down version condemning hate in general.

“While we commend Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to bring to the floor the issue of anti-Semitism within its ranks, the politically expedient resolution failed to call out Representative Omar by name,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement afterward.

Among Rep. Omar’s most notorious anti-Semitic statements:

  • “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
  • “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” explaining that American politicians’ support for Israel is motivated by Jewish money.
  • Suggesting that American Jews have a dual loyalty to both the U.S. and Israel and their commitment to America is therefore questionable.

“This accusation that Jews have a dual loyalty or require people to pledge allegiance to a foreign power, it is an anti-Semitic charge that has been used against the Jewish people literally for hundreds of years, long before there was a state of Israel,” said Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.

And just weeks ago, Omar was embroiled in another controversy over a tweet that appeared to imply businessman Leon Cooperman’s support for presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg is based on the fact that they’re both Jewish.

Now, thanks to the New Hampshire Young Democrats and Senator Sanders, young Granite State progressives will get to hear Omar’s sparkling insights, up close and personal, in Manchester.

Sanders’ willingness to embrace progressives with anti-Israel, and sometimes anti-Semitic, views is not new. Just days ago, he was forced to fire a new staffer when his anti-Semitic tweets about “Jew money” were discovered, and several members of Sanders’ senior staff have been embroiled in controversies regarding Israel and anti-Semitism.

“Bernie Sanders should know better: Omar’s anti-Semitic and insensitive language does not reflect the values of Granite Staters, or the vast majority of Americans.  Bernie and Omar’s shared socialist pipe dream is sure to further solidify Granite Staters support for President Trump and Republicans across the state,” Republican National Committee Spokesperson Nina McLaughlin told NHJournal.

So why are the NH Young Democrats embracing a divisive figure like Omar? It certainly doesn’t fit in with their mission as New Hampshire’s official chapter of the Young Democrats of America.

“Our membership reflects the broad diversity of our nation and the Democratic Party,” the organization claims. “Acceptance of diverse viewpoints is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy.”

The YDA’s platform even includes a declaration on behalf of “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish Democratic state,” which is ironic given the number of events Rep. Omar has attended with crowds shouting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — a not-so-subtle call for the destruction of Israel.

The NH Young Democrats have offered no explanation of how Rep. Omar’s standing as an outspoken opponent of Israel fits in with the values of this local Democratic organization. And no elected NH Democratic officials have spoken out publicly about Omar’s attendance at the Granite Slate Awards. In fact, NH Senate Majority Leader (and 2020 candidate for governor) Sen. Dan Feltes sent out an email Wednesday urging Granite State Democrats to “get your tickets now” for the event.

In March, when the House was debating Omar’s anti-Semitic comments, not one of New Hampshire’s four Democratic members of Congress would condemn her offensive remarks. Several members of the Granite State’s Jewish community did speak out, however.

“I think Omar’s comments were anti-Semitic and I think they were unacceptable,” former N.H. Congressman Paul Hodes told NHJournal. “Had I been a member of Congress, I think –I hope– that I would have been clear in rejecting anti-Semitic comments and holding the speaker accountable.” Hodes was the first Jewish member of the House of Representatives elected from New Hampshire.

Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman of Temple B’nai Israel in Laconia, N.H. was more direct: “All I can say is that Rep. Omar’s comments were anti-Semitic, and that silence is wrong.”