Supreme Court says religious schools can get scholarships financed by tax credits

People wait in line in front of the United States Supreme Court in Washington on March 18, 2019.

Erin Scott | Reuters

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday 5-4 that a Montana scholarship program that indirectly provided state funds to religious schools is protected by the Constitution, weighing in on a high-profile dispute over the separation of church and state.

Court President John Roberts wrote for the court. He was joined by conservative judges Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. The four appointed court Democrats disagreed.

Roberts wrote that a decision by the Montana Supreme Court to invalidate a scholarship program on the grounds that it would provide funds for religious schools in addition to secular schools “excludes religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious nature of the schools. “

“The provision also prohibits parents who wish to send their children to a religious school for those same benefits, again only because of the religious nature of the school,” wrote Roberts.

The decision comes after a series of cases in which Roberts sided with the liberal wing of the court on issues related to LGBT rights, immigration and abortion.

The case involved a scholarship program enacted in Montana in 2015, which provided individuals and businesses with up to $ 150 in tax credits to match donations to private nonprofit scholarship organizations.

Shortly after the program was enacted, the Montana Department of Revenue established a rule that prohibited scholarship recipients from using program funds to pay for religious schools.

That rule was intended to comply with a provision of the Montana Constitution, which prohibits “any appropriation or direct or indirect payment of any public fund or money … for any sectarian purpose,” including “helping any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution. ”

Similar prohibitions, known as Blaine’s amendments, exist in the constitutions of 36 other states, and in many cases stem from anti-Catholic sentiments.

Three mothers who relied on the scholarship program to help pay for their children’s tuition at a nondenominational Christian school defied the department’s rule, arguing it violated First Amendment religious protections.

A lower court in Montana sided with the mothers, but the Montana Supreme Court reversed the decision, arguing that the tax credit program was indirectly paying for tuition at religious schools, in violation of the state constitution.

The Montana court struck down the tax credit program in its entirety.

The mothers brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court’s decision was inadmissibly hostile to religion.

“Banning all religious options in generally available student aid programs rejects that neutrality and shows inherent hostility towards religion,” his attorney, Richard Komer, told the judges in a presentation.

The Montana Department of Revenue responded that the state Supreme Court decision “protects religious freedom.”

The state constitution’s ban on funding religious schools “does not restrict individual liberty,” wrote Adam Unikowsky, a state attorney. “Rather, it restricts the government by banning state aid to religious schools.”

Montana’s tax credit scholarship program was similar to programs running in 18 states, according to a report by a friend of the court presented to the judges.

The case is Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, No. 18-1195.

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