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Supreme Court Ruling Gives Religious Schools More Access to State Aid Supreme Court Gives Religious Schools More Access to State Aid
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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools. WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools, a decision that opened the door to more public funding of religious education.
The decision, a victory for conservatives, was the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that the free exercise of religion bars the government from treating religious groups differently from secular ones. It opens the door to more public funding of religious education. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has proposed a tax-credit program to help parents pay for private schools, called the decision ”a historic victory” that meant “families can use taxpayer funds to choose schools that match their values and educational goals, including faith-based schools.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion in the 5-to-4 ruling. The court’s four more liberal members dissented. The court’s 5-to-4 decision, with the more conservative members in the majority, did not directly affect public schools, but their supporters said they feared it would help divert resources from public to private education. Dissenting justices said the decision damaged the separation of church and state.
“A state need not subsidize private education,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” The Supreme Court has long held that states may choose to provide aid to religious schools along with other private schools. The question in the case brought by three mothers with children at Stillwater Christian School, in Kalispell, Mont., was the opposite one: May states refuse to provide such aid if it is made available to other private schools?
The case involved a Montana program enacted in 2015 “to provide parental and student choice in education.” The program was financed by private contributions eligible for tax credits, and it provided scholarships to students in private schools. Montana’s Constitution, like those of many other states, restricts government aid to religious groups. Those provisions, often called Blaine amendments, were initially adopted in the 19th century and often had the goal of restricting funding for Catholic schools.
Soon after the program started, a state agency said students attending religious schools were not eligible in light of a provision of the state’s Constitution that bars the use of government money for “any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect or denomination.” The three mothers in Kalispell wanted to participate in a state program enacted in 2015 “to provide parental and student choice in education.” It was financed by private contributions eligible for tax credits, and it provided scholarships to students in private schools. In 2018, 94 percent of the scholarships went to students attending religious schools.
Three mothers with children at Stillwater Christian School, in Kalispell, Mont., sued, saying that provision of the state Constitution violated the protections of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Montana Supreme Court ruled against the parents, shutting down the entire program for all schools, religious or not, in light of a provision of the state’s Constitution that bars the use of government money for “any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect or denomination.”
The Montana Supreme Court ruled against them, shutting down the entire program for all schools, religious or not. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in the case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, No. 18-1195, said that provision of Montana’s Constitution ran afoul of the federal Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion by discriminating against religious people and schools.
The decision built on earlier rulings on the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. In 2017, for instance, in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the Supreme Court ruled that Missouri had violated the First Amendment by barring religious institutions from a state program to make playgrounds safer, even though the state’s Constitution called for strict separation of church and state. “A state need not subsidize private education,” he wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority opinion “weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”
The court’s ruling will have an immediate effect, said Tim Keller, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, which represented parents who challenged their exclusion from the Montana program. “Policymakers nationwide now have the freedom to enact school choice programs that will empower parents to make important educational decisions for their children,” he said.
Of the 37 states with Blaine amendments, he said, 14 have strict prohibitions on the participation of religious schools in state programs.
Mr. Keller said that as a result of the court’s decision, he expected prompt action from officials in Missouri, Idaho, South Dakota and Texas. His group is also working on legal challenges to what he said were discriminatory policies in Maine and Vermont.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she feared that the court’s ruling would be used “to defund and dismantle public education.”
“We should be prioritizing additional resources for public education and other vital social programs,” she said in a statement, “not diverting them to private purposes.”
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts said the no-aid provision in Montana’s Constitution imposed a heavy burden on people of faith and their ability to educate their children in that faith.
“The prohibition before us today burdens not only religious schools but also the families whose children attend or hope to attend them,” he wrote, adding that the court had long protected parents’ ability to direct their children’s religious upbringing.
“The no-aid provision,” the chief justice wrote, “penalizes that decision by cutting families off from otherwise available benefits if they choose a religious private school rather than a secular one, and for no other reason.”
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh joined Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion.
In a lengthy concurring opinion, Justice Alito described the general history of Blaine amendments, which he said were prompted by prejudice against Catholic immigrants. When the case was argued in January, Justice Kavanaugh said the amendments were “rooted in grotesque religious bigotry against Catholics.”
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts briefly discussed the dark history of the amendments but said the roots of Montana’s current amendment, which was readopted in 1972, were complex.
In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, focused on one aspect of the Montana Supreme Court’s decision, which shut down the scholarship program for all schools and not just religious ones. Because no one was eligible for scholarships under the state court’s ruling, Justice Ginsburg wrote, there had been no discrimination.
“On that sole ground, and reaching no other issue,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “I dissent from the court’s judgment.”
Chief Justice Roberts responded that the case was properly before the U.S. Supreme Court because “the Montana Supreme Court invalidated the program pursuant to a state law provision that expressly discriminates on the basis of religious status.”
Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion built on earlier rulings on the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. In 2017, for instance, in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the Supreme Court ruled that Missouri had violated the First Amendment by barring religious institutions from a state program to make playgrounds safer, even though Missouri’s Constitution called for strict separation of church and state.
“The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority.“The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority.
At the same time, writing for four justices, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized the narrowness of the court’s decision. “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” he wrote. “We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”At the same time, writing for four justices, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized the narrowness of the court’s decision. “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” he wrote. “We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
A 2004 Supreme Court decision, Locke v. Davey, allowed Washington State to offer college scholarships to all students except those pursuing degrees in devotional theology. That case involved direct support for religion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the Trinity Lutheran case. Playgrounds, he argued, were a different matter. On the other hand, a 2004 Supreme Court decision, Locke v. Davey, allowed Washington State to offer college scholarships to all students except those pursuing degrees in devotional theology. That case involved direct support for religion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the Montana ruling, while the new case did not.
The program at issue in the Montana case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, No. 18-1195, was somewhere in the middle. It involved elements of religious instruction, but it did not concern a targeted exclusion of state support for vocational religious instruction. In dissent, Justice Sotomayor said both cases involved “taxpayer funds to support religious schooling.”
In another dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer expressed concern about the implications of the majority opinion for public and charter schools.
“How would the majority’s rule distinguish between those states in which support for charter schools is akin to public school funding and those in which it triggers a constitutional obligation to fund private religious schools?” Justice Breyer asked. “The majority’s rule provides no guidance, even as it sharply limits the ability of courts and legislatures to balance the potentially competing interests.”
Erica Green contributed reporting.