The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Wednesday in what could be a landmark case impacting the separation of church and state. Three mothers from Montana are suing a state agency, saying it is unfairly denying them funds that they rely on to send their children to private schools simply because those schools are religious.
“This is grossly unfair to any parents of kids who go to religious school,” said Kendra Espinoza, according to Reuters. Espinoza is one of the plaintiffs in the case, and she says, “It’s not fair to us to be excluded (from) funds available to the general public.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, disagrees: “They’re demanding the court require public funding of religious schools. This is a blatant affront to democracy…It would basically change 200 years of practice in the United States.”
Debating the Separation of Church and State
The case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue began in 2015 when the Montana state legislature created a tax credit program that provided dollar-for-dollar tax credits for individuals and businesses that donated up to $150 toward helping students attend private schools. The state allotted $3 million dollars per year for this purpose.
While the money was set aside for students attending any private school, religious or otherwise, ABC News reports that 69 percent of private schools in Montana are religious. And according to NBC News, 90 percent of schools that signed up for the scholarship fund had a religious affiliation. After the legislation was passed, the Montana Department of Revenue decided to stop any of those funds from going to schools with religious ties on the basis that allowing that would be unconstitutional.
The Montana Supreme Court heard the case in 2018, after which it decided to eliminate the tax credit program altogether. Scholarship recipients have, however, retained their financial aid for the current school year while the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case.
Arguments For and Against
Kendra Espinzoa is a single, working mother who could send her two daughters to public school for free, but instead relies on state money to help her send them to Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana. Espinoza told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (BDC) that her daughters prefer attending Stillwater, where they are happy, instead of going back to public school, where they were “facing distractions, bullying and ostracism.”
Espinoza works three jobs, and she and her daughters do yard work, clean offices, and hold yard sales to make ends meet. She does not believe she should be prevented from deciding where to educate her children just because she wants to send them somewhere that teaches a Christian worldview. Espinoza and the other plaintiffs (who are supported by the Trump administration) argue that Montana’s actions go beyond neutrality to outright hostility toward religion.
Opponents of the case argue that if the plaintiffs win, the result could have widespread, negative consequences for the separation of church and state in the U.S. The head of the National Education Association called the situation “the latest stealth attack on public education.” The state of Montana has told the Supreme Court that adding private schools to the pool of schools that receive state funding will hurt the entire educational system and would compel some residents to financially support beliefs with which they do not agree. What’s more, the state says it is actually protecting religious freedom “by preventing the government from using its leverage to dictate religious policy.”
The BDC says the case’s opponents are worried about the potential outcome, while its supporters are optimistic about the Supreme Court’s decision, which should be handed down in late June. One reason the plaintiffs might feel they have a good shot at winning is that in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri could not stop a Lutheran school from requesting state money to restore its playgrounds. This was before Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court, which now has a 5-4 conservative majority. However, Chief Justice John Roberts was careful to state that the court’s decision in the Missouri case does “not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
Montana is one of 37 states that prohibits public funding for schools with religious affiliations, and there is one point on which both sides of this debate are in full agreement: the Supreme Court’s decision will be highly significant for policies pertaining to the separation of church and state.
Weingarten fears the impact that a decision in favor of the plaintiffs could have on public education, saying it would “be a virtual earthquake.” Erica Smith, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, agrees about the extent of that impact, saying that a decision in their favor “will provide momentum to the entire country.”