Espinoza v. Montana Department of the Treasury analyzed whether the Montana Supreme Court violated the United States Constitution when it eliminated a tax credit scholarship program that allowed students to attend private schools, including religious schools.
The Montana court ruled in 2018 that the program violated a state constitutional “No Aid Clause” that prohibited the legislature from spending public funds to help religious schools. The provisions, in nearly 40 states, are also known as “Blaine’s Amendments.”
The judges held that the application of Montana’s “no-aid provision” discriminated against religious schools and families whose children attend or expect to attend in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in decision 5-4.
The decision represents a “turning point in the sad and static history of American education,” said DeVos, who asked states to “seize the extraordinary opportunity” to expand education options. Long opposed to Blaine’s amendments as rooted in the “anti-Catholic” bias, DeVos said Montana and other states should be “very clear” about the decision.
“His fanatical Blaine amendments and other restrictions like them are unconstitutional, dead and buried,” he said in a statement. “Too many students have been discriminated against because of their faith and have been forced to stay in schools that do not match their values.”
Proponents of the school’s choice said it was a great triumph in court. “The weight of this monumental decision is immense, as it is an extraordinary victory for student achievement, parental control, equality of educational opportunity and First Amendment rights,” said Jeanne Allen, founder and executive director of the Center for Educational Reform.
The American Federation of Children, the school choice group that DeVos once chaired, is now looking forward to the continued expansion of such scholarship programs in Montana and across the country, said its president, John Schilling. “The Court correctly recognized the discriminatory nature of Blaine’s state amendments, and they have once again affirmed the constitutionality of school choice programs,” it said in a statement.
Teachers unions linked the decision to DeVos’ work in choosing the school.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest union, said the ruling undermines public education and opens the door for “new attacks on state decisions not to fund religious schools.”
“For decades, Betsy DeVos has financed a methodical attack on public schools that educate 90 percent of the nation’s children,” he said. “Espinoza’s decision reduces the basis on which states can reject her calls to fund private religious schools.”
During discussions in January, Adam Unikowsky, who advocated for the Montana Department of Revenue, said the “No Help Clause” in the state constitution protects religious freedom from government interference.
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm based in Arlington, Virginia, driving the expansion of school choice in court, represents Montana families. An attorney for the attorney general’s office also argued in support of the families, saying the Montana constitutional provision is “inconsistent with and preceded by the federal free exercise clause.”
Attorney General William Barr said Tuesday that due to the ruling, “a state can no longer disqualify religious schools from scholarships or other programs ‘just because they are religious.'”
In Zelman v. Simmons-HarrisThe Supreme Court decided in 2002 that the United States Constitution allows states to include religious schools in a school choice program. The question in Espinoza’s case was whether states are allowed to exclude them, according to Erica Smith, an attorney for the Institute for Justice who is a co-counselor for families in Montana.
Proponents of school choice were optimistic due to a 7-2 Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Eat who argued that Missouri had wrongly denied a church a state grant to rebuild its playground “simply for what it is: a church.” But a plurality added a footnote that appeared to be trying to limit the ruling, suggesting that it does not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.
Roberts References Trinity In his opinion, he writes: “Here, too, the Montana non-aid provision prohibits religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious nature of the schools. The provision also prohibits parents who wish to send their children to a religious school of those same benefits, again only because of the religious nature of the school. “