Supreme Court Opens Montana’s Education Tax Credit Program to Religious Schools

Supreme Court building in Washington

The Supreme Court of the United States narrowed the separation of church and state in a major ruling on Tuesday by endorsing Montana tax credits that helped pay for students to attend religious schools, a decision paving the way for more public funding of faith-based institutions.

The Legislature created the tax credit in 2015 for contributions made to certain scholarship programs for private education.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said the application of Montana's constitutional provision discriminates against parents of children attending religious schools and violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.

Roberts wrote, "A state need not subsidize private education".

In an opinion concurring with the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: "Catholic and Jewish schools sprang up because the common schools were not neutral on matters of religion".

Three plaintiffs-Kendra Espinoza, Jeri Anderson, and Jaime Schaefer-who wish to send their children to Stillwater Christian School using scholarship funds challenged the rule in state court.

The White House said in a statement that "today's Supreme Court decision on religious schools. removes one of the biggest obstacles to better educational opportunities for all children". "The bigoted legacy of James Blaine is dead".

Teachers' unions and leftwing civil liberties groups see the case as a serious threat to public education and religious neutrality in civic life.

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"Today's Court, by contrast, rejects the Religion Clauses' balanced values in favor of a new theory of free exercise, and it does so only by setting aside well-established judicial constraints", Sotomayor concluded.

The Montana constitutional provision at issue bans any state aid to a school controlled by a "church, sect or denomination".

"The Blaine Amendment was "born of bigotry" and "arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general"; many of its state counterparts have a similarly 'shameful pedigree [,]'" Roberts wrote, citing a previous Supreme Court ruling and a law review article. "The high court makes clear that the Free Exercise Clause demands the equal treatment of religious citizens and institutions in government programs".

In the 5-4 ruling, the court essentially backed a Montana tax-credit scholarship program that gave residents up to a $150 credit for donating to private scholarship organizations, helping students pay for their choice of private schools.

The justices faulted the Montana Supreme Court for voiding a taxpayer program merely because it can be used to fund religious entities, saying such action violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protection for the free exercise of religion.

"Too often government rules discriminate against people of faith because of a misunderstanding about religious freedom. All of America's children deserve a first-rate education".

Another attorney who co-authored a brief supporting the plaintiffs, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty vice president and senior counsel Eric Baxter, predicted the ruling will not result in significant new funds flowing to religious schools.

The parents sued after the state's Department of Revenue ruled that those scholarship funds could not be used for religious schools. About two-thirds of private schools in Montana have a religious affiliation.

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