Supreme Court says religious schools can get scholarships financed by tax credits

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday 5-4 that a Montana scholarship program that indirectly provided state funds to religious schools is protected by the Constitution, weighing in on a high-profile dispute over the separation of church and state.

Court President John Roberts wrote for the court. He was joined by conservative judges Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. The four appointed court Democrats disagreed.

Roberts wrote that a decision by the Montana Supreme Court to invalidate a scholarship program on the grounds that it would provide funds for religious schools in addition to secular schools “excludes 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 for those same benefits, again only because of the religious nature of the school,” wrote Roberts.

Roberts wrote that no state is required to subsidize private education, but if it does, “you cannot disqualify some private schools just because they are religious.”

The decision comes after a series of cases in which Roberts sided with the liberal wing of the court on issues related to LGBT rights, immigration and abortion.

The case involved a scholarship program enacted in Montana in 2015, which provided individuals and businesses with up to $ 150 in tax credits to match donations to private nonprofit scholarship organizations.

Shortly after the program was enacted, the Montana Department of Revenue established a rule that prohibited scholarship recipients from using program funds to pay for religious schools.

That rule was intended to comply with a provision of the Montana Constitution, which prohibits “any appropriation or direct or indirect payment of any public fund or money … for any sectarian purpose,” including “helping any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution. ”

Similar prohibitions, known as Blaine’s amendments, exist in the constitutions of 36 other states, and in many cases stem from anti-Catholic sentiments.

Three mothers who relied on the scholarship program to help pay for their children’s tuition at a non-religious Christian school defied the department’s rule, arguing that it violated First Amendment religious protections.

A lower court in Montana sided with the mothers, but the Montana Supreme Court reversed the decision, arguing that the tax credit program was indirectly paying for tuition at religious schools, in violation of the state constitution.

The Montana court struck down the tax credit program in its entirety.

The mothers brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court’s decision was inadmissibly hostile to religion.

“Banning all religious options in generally available student aid programs rejects that neutrality and shows inherent hostility towards religion,” his attorney, Richard Komer, told the judges in a presentation.

The Montana Department of Revenue responded that the state Supreme Court decision “protects religious freedom.”

The state constitution’s ban on funding religious schools “does not restrict individual liberty,” wrote Adam Unikowsky, a state attorney. “Rather, it restricts the government by banning state aid to religious schools.”

Montana’s tax credit scholarship program was similar to programs running in 18 states, according to a report by a friend of the court presented to the judges.

Religious groups celebrated the decision of the Supreme Court.

Brian Burch, the president of Catholic Vote, a national faith-based advocacy organization, said the ruling was “a long overdue victory for American families and a defeat for anti-Catholic bigotry.”

Kristen Wagoner, an attorney for the religious freedom group Alliance Defending Freedom, said, “The Supreme Court sent a loud and clear message: Equal opportunity does not depend on your religious beliefs and practices. That’s what the First Amendment means.”

On the other hand, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, condemned the court measure and called it “a seismic shock that threatens both public education and religious freedom.”

“Never in more than two centuries of American history has the First Amendment free exercise clause been used as a weapon to dismantle and dismantle public education,” Weingarten said.

Daniel Mach, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the decision was “the latest in a disturbing line of Supreme Court cases that attack the rationale for the separation of church and state.”

“In the past, the court used to protect itself against government-funded religion. Today, the court has not only allowed but also required taxpayers to underwrite religious education,” Mach said.

The majority decision was also attacked by the liberal wing of the court, with multiple judges writing dissenters.

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with Judge Elena Kagan, argued that the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the scholarship program in its entirety, rather than limiting its benefits to religious schools, meant that the state did not discriminate to those who had religious opinions. .

“Under that decree, secular and sectarian schools are not eligible for benefits, so the decision cannot be said to involve differential treatment based on the petitioners’ religion,” wrote Ginsburg. In other words, the petitioners argue that the Free Exercise Clause requires that a State treat institutions and individuals neutrally when they distribute a benefit, and neutrally is how Montana treats them as a result of the court’s decision. state”.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor relied on similar reasoning on a separate dissent. She added that the superior court “has never before carried out an unconstitutional government action that simply has not benefited the religious exercise.”

Judge Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by Kagan, wrote that “the majority approach and its conclusion in this case, I am afraid, risks the kind of entanglement and conflict that the religion clauses are meant to avoid.”

The case is Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, No. 18-1195.