The U.S. Supreme Court said Tuesday that states can’t cut religious schools out of programs that send public money to private education in a 5-4 ruling.
Hailed as a victory for religious freedom, the justices upheld a Montana scholarship program that allows state tax credits for private schooling in which almost all the recipients attend religious schools.
The Montana Supreme Court had struck down the K-12 private education scholarship program that was created by the Legislature in 2015 to make donors eligible for up to $150 in state tax credits. The state court had ruled that the tax credit violated the Montana constitution’s ban, called a Blaine Amendment, on state aid to religious schools.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion that said the state ruling itself ran afoul of the religious freedom, embodied in the U.S. Constitution, of parents who want the scholarships to help pay for their children’s private education.
“A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” Roberts wrote.
In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito pointed to evidence of anti-Catholic bigotry that he said motivated the original adoption of the Montana provision and others like it in the 1800s, although Montana’s constitution was redone in 1972 with the provision intact. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose two daughters attend Catholic schools, made a similar point during arguments in January when he talked about the “grotesque religious bigotry” against Catholics that underlay the amendment.
U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr said in a statement that he was “pleased” with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
According to Barr, Montana’s Blaine Amendment – a provision found in various forms in many other states – excluded religious schools from state scholarship programs that are open to other educational institutions. It thus prevented parents who send their children to religious schools from receiving scholarship funds that are available to the rest of the community, he said.
“The Court’s decision represents an important victory for religious liberty and religious equality in the United States. As the Court explained, religious people are ‘members of the community too,’ and their exclusion from public programs because of their religion is ‘odious to our Constitution’ and ‘cannot stand.’ We were pleased to see the Court agree with the Trump Administration that such blatant discrimination against religion has no place in our constitutional system,” Barr added.
Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values, said it’s “troubling that four justices on the U.S. Supreme Court believe religious bigotry is acceptable.”
“Today’s Supreme Court decision affirms what everyone already knows: discrimination against these schools is un-American,” he said. “When the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion, it doesn’t elevate secularism above religion. It puts all worldviews on a level playing field. It was wrong for Montana – or any state – to penalize religious institutions because they are religious.”
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the ruling “removes one of the biggest obstacles to better educational opportunities for all children.”
“States may no longer hide behind rules motivated by insidious bias against Catholics, known as Blaine Amendments, to exclude religious schools from public benefits. Laws that condition public benefits, like need-based academic scholarships, on religious status demonstrate state-sanctioned hostility to religion, pressure people and institutions to censor their religious views, and stigmatize disfavored religions. The Trump Administration believes that school choice is a civil rights issue, and that no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school,” she said.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was more blunt, warning state leaders that “your bigoted Blaine Amendments and other restrictions like them are unconstitutional, dead, and buried.”
“I applaud the Court’s decision to assign a manifestation of the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ to the dustbin of history where it belongs,” she said in a statement. “Too many students have been discriminated against based on their faith and have been forced to stay in schools that don’t match their values. This decision represents a turning point in the sad and static history of American education, and it will spark a new beginning of education that focuses first on students and their needs.”
– – –