The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Montana’s exclusion of religious schools from the tax-credit-funded scholarships violated the First Amendment.
Espinoza v. Montana was brought by three mothers of religious school students from Montana who sought $500 tuition scholarships funded by a state tax credit program. The Montana Legislature established a program to provide tuition assistance to parents who send their children to private schools. The program grants a tax credit to anyone who donates to certain organizations that in turn award scholarships to selected students attending such schools. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that religious schools could not receive the scholarship funds.
Today’s High Court decision is a major victory for parents seeking to educate their children at religious schools. While the Court did not rule that states are required to fund religious education, scholarship programs cannot differentiate between religious and secular private schools.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion. Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch each wrote concurring opinions. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Kagan, wrote a dissent, as did Justice Breyer (joined in part by Kagan) and Justice Sotomayor.
The Montana Supreme Court cited the so-called “Blaine Amendment” in the state constitution that prohibits state religious schools from receiving state funds. The Blaine Amendment was a failed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have prohibited direct government aid to educational institutions that have a religious affiliation. Named after its original sponsor, Senator James G. Blaine, the amendment was designed to deny government aid to parochial schools, especially those operated by the Catholic Church in locations with large immigrant populations. When it failed multiple times to be placed on the ballot, several states amended their constitutions to include a similar version, including Montana.
In reversing the Montana Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts, wrote, “A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious. 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.”
States offering scholarships to students in private schools cannot exclude religious schools from such programs. Montana’s exclusion of religious schools from the tax credit program violated the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause. Now, families who receive education vouchers may apply those vouchers at any school they wish, regardless of its religious affiliation or lack of such an affiliation.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “The U.S. Supreme Court made an important ruling that affirms the right of religious freedom to every American. This decision underscores that people of faith should be protected from discrimination, particularly in their decision where to educate their children. Faith-based schools make an important contribution to their communities and are part of the foundation of America.”