by Derek Draplin
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a wide-reaching Montana case dealing with school choice and the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will take up the case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which is being litigated by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.
The case stems from a scholarship program passed in 2015 by the Montana legislature that would give tax credits to those who donated to private scholarship organizations, which would then give scholarships to students in need who wanted to attend private schools.
The program allowed for scholarships to be used at private religious schools.
The Montana Department of Revenue, however, determined that the program violated the state constitution’s “Blaine Amendment” because it allowed for scholarships to be used at religious schools.
The Montana Supreme Court backed the Department of Revenue’s argument and later invalidated the scholarship program, leading to the lawsuit.
The Institute for Justice is representing several parents including Kendra Espinoza, a single mother who enrolled her kids in a private Christian school after public school wasn’t a good fit.
Lower courts have been split on similar questions over school choice in the past, but Institute for Justice argues “that government may not – consistent with the federal Constitution – prohibit religious options in student-aid programs.”
“Although the U.S. Supreme Court held that including religious options in educational choice programs is perfectly permissible under the federal Constitution, the lower courts have disagreed for decades about whether states may nevertheless exclude religious options in these programs,” said Erica Smith, an attorney with the law firm. “We hope the Court will clarify that just as the government cannot force families participating in these programs to choose a religious school, the government also cannot ban these families from choosing a religious school. The First Amendment requires government neutrality, not hostility, toward religion.”
IJ also said that the Blaine Amendment, which the Department of Revenue used to justify the religious school exclusion, “was designed to discriminate against Catholic schools and students at a time of widespread hostility toward Catholics.”
Espinoza in a statement said she hoped the court rules in favor of school choice.
“The Montana Supreme Court’s ruling hurts every Montana child who is counting on these scholarships,” she said. “For the benefit of families across the state, and the nation, we hope the U.S. Supreme Court restores this program to families that need it to ensure their children have access to a good, safe and meaningful education.”
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Derek Draplin is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as an opinion producer at Forbes, and as a reporter at Michigan Capitol Confidential and The Detroit News. He’s also an editor at The Daily Caller.
Photo “Kendra Espinoza” by Institute for Justice. CC BY 4.0.