The Supreme Court announced a ruling today for a case it heard in January of this year concerning the right of religious schools in Montana to receive state-sponsored grant funds. The conservative-majority court, whose latest rulings on LGBTQ rights and abortion have felt like betrayals to conservative Christians, sided with the religious schools in this ruling. In a ruling that has broad consequences for religious schools and religious parents throughout the country, SCOTUS determined that religious schools in Montana have just as much right to receive state funding as do secular private schools.
“The weight that this monumental decision carries is immense, as it’s an extraordinary victory for student achievement, parental control, equality in educational opportunities, and First Amendment rights,” said Jeanne Allen, the founder and chief executive of the Center for Education Reform (CER).
The vote went 5-4 in favor of the religious schools. Conservative Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh comprised the majority.
Montana’s Provision Violates the Free Exercise Clause
Writing the opinion of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the state’s blocking of funding from religious schools based on Montana’s “no aid” provision to religious organizations in its constitution ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.
Another reason the court ruled the way it did was because of the effect the no aid provision had on individuals who sought scholarships made available through the grant. Roberts explained that individuals such as Kendra Espinzoa, a single, working mother from Montana, whose children attend a private Christian school, should have the right to obtain a scholarship to send her children to the school of her choosing, regardless of the school’s religious orientation.
As ChurchLeaders reported in January, when the court was hearing arguments for the case, individuals seeking scholarships are the ones who raised the alarm in Montana:
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.
In an amicus brief in support of Espinoza and the other parents represented in the case, CER delved into the motivations behind the no aid provision in Montana’s constitution. The provision stems from what many refer to as a “Blaine amendment”, so named after an unsuccessful proposal by Maine Representative James Blaine (R., Maine) in 1875 to include a no aid for religiously affiliated schools provision in the U.S. Constitution. Blaine amendments are often considered to arise from the anti-Catholic sentiment of this time. While the Blaine Amendment failed to change the U.S. Constitution, a significant number of states (including Montana) adopted a similar provision for their own constitutions. CER argued that Montana’s no aid provision was adopted for such anti-Catholic reasons and therefore should not apply to this current case.
Ruling Could Affect Other Religious and Public Schools Moving Forward
Some conservative groups hope that the Court’s ruling today will have broader implications throughout the country—perhaps paving the way for religious schools to obtain more public (IE: taxpayer) funding in the future.
Others, including Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the head of the National Education Association, considers the case as “the latest stealth attack on public education.” Garcia believes the precedent set by this case will potentially take away millions of dollars in funding from public schools that are already struggling and represent “an absolute drain on critical resources from neighborhood schools.”