WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that award scholarships to students attending private schools.
The decision, a victory for conservatives, was the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that the free exercise of religion prohibits the government from treating religious groups differently than secularists. Open the door to increased public funding for religious education.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion in ruling 5 to 4. The four other liberal members of the court disagreed.
“A state does not need to subsidize private education,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts. “But once a state decides to do it, it cannot disqualify some private schools just because they are religious.”
The case involved a Montana program enacted in 2015 “to provide choice for parents and students in education.” The program was funded by private contributions eligible for tax credits, and provided scholarships to students in private schools.
Shortly after the program began, a state agency said students attending religious schools were ineligible in light of a provision in the state Constitution prohibiting the use of government money for “any sectarian purpose or to help to any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, wholly or partially controlled by any church, sect, or denomination. “
Three mothers with children at Stillwater Christian School, in Kalispell, Mont., Sued, saying the provision of the state Constitution violated the protections of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled against them, closing the entire program for all schools, religious or otherwise.
“The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is hateful to our Constitution,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority.
At the same time, writing for four judges, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized the narrowness of the court’s decision. “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity regarding the renovation of the playground,” he wrote. “We do not address the religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
A 2004 Supreme Court decision, Locke v. Davey allowed Washington state to offer college scholarships to all students except those seeking degrees in devotional theology. That case involved direct support for religion, wrote Chief Justice Roberts in the Trinity Lutheran case. Playgrounds, he argued, were a different matter.
The program in question in the case of Montana, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, No. 18-1195, was somewhere in between. It involved elements of religious instruction, but did not refer to a selective exclusion from state support for religious vocational instruction.