By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
July 3, 2020
States cannot be forced to subsidize private education, but if they decide to do so, they cannot discriminate against schools simply because they are faith-based — that’s the gist of Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, in his opinion, which stated in part that “the Establishment Clause is not offended when religious observers and organizations benefit from neutral government programs.”
The case stemmed from Montana’s Senate Bill 410, passed by lawmakers five years ago. The law allowed tax credits for donations of up to $150 to either private school scholarships or educational programs in public schools. Montana’s Department of Revenue initially barred religious schools from the program because the state’s constitution prohibits “direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies … to aid any church, school, academy … controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”
But three low-income mothers who wanted to use the program for religious schools sued the government and won. Nonetheless, the Montana Supreme Court halted the program due to it allowing for religious schools to be included, agreeing with the Department of Revenue that it violated the state constitution.
The Becket Fund, a religious liberty law firm, argued the case before the Supreme Court in January and celebrated Tuesday’s ruling as a victory over so-called Blaine Amendments, which several states have in place to block funding for religious institutions.
“Religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public benefit programs,” the organization posted on its social media accounts Tuesday.
Other groups also heralded the ruling.
“This opinion will pave the way for more states to pass school choice programs that allow parents to choose a school that best meets their child’s individual needs, regardless of whether those schools are religious or nonreligious,” said Erica Smith, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represented the parents in their initial court fight.
However, the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, was disappointed that the ruling was not unanimous.
“I’m thankful for a good ruling like this one. Nevertheless, the black cloud which surrounds this decision, something that angers me, is that we obviously have four justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, who clearly believe religious bigotry is alright,” Creech said. “A few weeks ago these same four justices unequivocally said there must be no workplace discrimination against LGBTQ, but in this case they signal that religious bigotry is acceptable.”
“I’ll grant you that this was a good ruling today. Again, I’m thankful. But everyone of those liberal justices should have been on board with this,” he added. “And when four justices on the Supreme Court have so little regard for the practice of religion, it’s somewhat hard for me to rejoice in it. I hold those so-called progressive justices in contempt!”
Interestingly, North Carolina’s own voucher program in the form of Opportunity Scholarships, has come under legal attack from the NC Association of Educators, the NC Justice Center and the NC School Boards Association, but never specifically because it allows parents to choose to apply their scholarships to faith-based schools. However, Public Schools First Inc. is quick to point out on its website that religious schools benefited from the scholarships during the 2018-2019 school year.
“The largest cohort of Opportunity Scholarship recipients attended a single religious school in Fayetteville, Trinity Christian School, with those 271 students making up more than half of its student population,” the site reports.