The U.S. Supreme Court handed supporters of school choice and private religious schools a major victory Tuesday, ruling that a Montana tax credit scholarship program does not violate the federal constitution if the money is used by parents for religious schooling.
At issue was a Montana program that gives individuals a tax credit up to $150 each year for donating to privately run student scholarship organizations. Those organizations then award scholarships to parents who send their children to private schools of their choice.
The Montana Supreme Court struck down the program and ruled it violated the state constitution because the money can be used for religious schools. The state constitution prohibits religious schools receiving government money in either a “direct or indirect” way. It’s sometimes called the “no aid provision” or the Blaine Amendment.
Parents of children who attended a Christian school in northwestern Montana brought the suit and then filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the state’s application of the Montana constitution discriminated against religious schools and families in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Roberts was joined in the opinion by the court’s conservative justices: Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.
“Given the conflict between the Free Exercise Clause and the application of the no-aid provision here, the Montana Supreme Court should have ‘disregard[ed]’ the no-aid provision and decided this case ‘conformably to the [C]onstitution’ of the United States,” Roberts wrote. “That ‘supreme law of the land’ condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them. They are ‘member[s] of the community too,’ and their exclusion from the scholarship program here is ‘odious to our Constitution’ and ‘cannot stand.’”
The Free Exercise Clause, Roberts wrote, “protects religious observers against unequal treatment” and against “laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status.”
Roberts also pointed to American history.
“In the founding era and the early 19th century, governments provided financial support to private schools, including denominational ones,” Roberts wrote. “... Local governments provided grants to private schools, including religious ones, for the education of the poor. … After the Civil War, Congress spent large sums on education for emancipated freedmen, often by supporting denominational schools in the South.”
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elana Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Religious liberty groups applauded the court’s majority decision.
“The Supreme Court was right to rule that states can’t oust parents and children from neutral benefit programs simply because they choose a religious private school,” said Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel John Bursch. “... The court was right to not allow the dead hand of 19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry – which motivated the state constitutional provision at issue here – to put a stranglehold on educational resources desperately needed by parents and their children.”
Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute, called it a “victory for religious liberty.”
Katherine Beck Johnson, research fellow for legal and policy studies at the Family Research Council, labeled the ruling a win for school choice.
“Too often government rules discriminate against people of faith because of a misunderstanding about religious freedom,” Johnson said. “The practice of shutting people off from generally available public benefits simply because of their faith is harmful and dangerous. Montana's Blaine Amendment, which denied school choice funds for families that wanted to send their children to religious schools, was religious discrimination, pure and simple.”
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.