Supreme Court says religious schools should get state subsidies

The Supreme Court bolstered religious schools on Tuesday, ruling that states that grant scholarships or tuition grants to children in private schools cannot deny the same aid to parents who enrolled their children in a religious school.

In a decision 5-4, the court said that excluding them amounted to unconstitutional discrimination based on religion and a violation of the 1st Amendment.

The decision is a victory for advocates of school choice and a setback for those who favor a strict separation of church and state.

Court experts said the decision in the Montana case marked the first time that the court ruled that states must provide help to children in religious schools, at least in some circumstances.

Montana, like more than 30 other states, has a long-standing state constitutional provision that prohibits the use of tax money to support churches and their affiliates. On that basis, the state supreme court blocked a state-sponsored scholarship program because it awarded $ 500 grants to low-income parents who sent their children to private and parochial schools.

Kendra Espinoza and two other mothers whose children were enrolled at the Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana, filed a lawsuit with the support of the Virginia-based Institute of Justice.

“A state does not need to subsidize private education,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in Espinoza vs. Montana, along with the other four conservative judges. “But once a state decides to do it, it cannot disqualify some private schools just because they are religious.”

The Constitution “condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them. They are also members of the community and their exclusion from the scholarship program here is ‘hateful to our Constitution’ and cannot be sustained,” he said.

Roberts, along with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, and Brett M. Kavanaugh, noted the anti-Catholic bigotry of the late 19th century, which they say led to a ban on funding “schools sectarian. ” ”In most state constitutions. The five conservatives at court, as well as liberal justice Sonia Sotomayor, grew up Catholic or attended Catholic schools.

These state provisions are known as the “Blaine Amendments” because they were based on a failed constitutional amendment sponsored by then House Speaker James G. Blaine, although the proposal originated with President Ulysses S. Grant. In a speech to veterans of the Civil War in 1875, Grant called for separation of church and state and government support for a “good common school education”, not funds for “sectarian schools” affiliated with a religion.

The proposed amendment by Blaine said that “no money raised through taxes” to support schools will go to none “under the control of a religious sect.” The proposal won overwhelmingly in the House, but failed to win the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate. But most states added a similar provision to their state constitutions, including Montana.

“The Blaine Amendment was born out of bigotry and came at a time of widespread hostility towards the Catholic Church and toward Catholics in general,” said Roberts.

Alito said Blaine’s amendments were “fueled by virulent prejudice against immigrants, particularly Catholic immigrants” and that they were backed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In their defense, Montana’s attorneys argued that while the state provision dates back to 1889, the current version was adopted in 1972 at a constitutional convention and did not reflect such fanaticism or bias.

Sotomayor joined the other court liberals, Judges Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Elena Kagan, who are Jewish, in supporting the separation of church and state, including banning government funding of religious schools .

“We all recognize that the 1st Amendment prohibits discrimination against religion,” Breyer wrote dissenting. “At the same time, our history and federal constitutional precedent reflect a deep concern that state funding for religious education, by stimulating fear of preference or in other ways, can fuel religious discord and division and, therefore, therefore, threatening religious freedom itself. “

Proponents of school choice say that only a handful of states provide grants or scholarships for children enrolled in private primary or secondary schools, but the court’s decision in favor of religious schools could encourage more of them to do so.

“It was time for Blaine’s amendments to bite the dust,” said Diana Verm, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom. “Our Constitution requires the same treatment for religious people and institutions. Relying on centuries-old state laws designed to attack Catholics to exclude all people of faith was legally, constitutionally, and morally wrong. “

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the decision a setback for religious freedom.

“Forcing taxpayers to pay for private religious education, as the Montana tax credit voucher program does, is a fundamental violation of their religious freedom,” he said. It also “has the effect of forcing Montana taxpayers to support a program that funds discrimination. All too often, religious schools reject the civil rights of women and LGBTQ people.”

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