National watchdog investigates San Jose’s award to Catholic school
Photo courtesy of Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School.

One day after a San José Spotlight report highlighted concerns over a six-figure grant the city awarded to a private Catholic school, a national watchdog group announced it is investigating the “unconstitutional grant.”

“The city’s decision to award more than 800,000 dollars of discretionary funds to a private religious school, subsidizing religious instruction, is unconstitutional,” wrote Ryan Jayne, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in a letter to San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle. “Combined with the mayor’s personal connection to the school and the alleged failure to give public school administrators the same notice provided to Cristo Rey, the appearance of an unfair bias is overwhelming.”

San Jose lawmakers earlier this month voted unanimously to award $838,264 to Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School, which was co-founded by Mayor Sam Liccardo and his wife. But as San José Spotlight reported, two San Jose superintendents said their public school districts were not notified about the nearly one million dollar grant. Cristo Rey was the only school that applied for the taxpayer-funded grant.

The funding will be used to subsidize students’ tuition for a work-study program at the Jesuit school, according to city documents.

Jayne said that by paying a portion of the students’ tuition at a private religious high school, the city is subsidizing religious instruction in violation of California’s “no aid” clause. The attorney also said it appeared that Cristo Rey was given preferential treatment over area local schools which is also unconstitutional.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members, has also filed a records request seeking information related to the city’s bidding process.

“Handing over close to one million dollars in public funds to a religious school in an under-the-table deal is an affront to the rights of conscience of every San Jose taxpayer,” added FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

But Doyle said the city intends to fight back and defended its decision to award the money to Cristo Rey.

“Aside from not having all the facts, their concerns have been looked at by our office and we determined that it passes the constitutional test,” said Doyle. “The process was open to all and followed a model similar to the county’s.”

But Jayne insists the city’s “unconstitutional” decision to award more than $800,000 of public funds to subsidize religious instruction is especially problematic when “combined with the mayor’s personal connection to the school and the alleged failure to give public school administrators the same notice.”

Jayne asked Doyle to respond in writing with the steps San Jose will take to “correct this misstep and to ensure that it will not force San Jose taxpayers to support a religion that they do not believe in.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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