Supreme Court Rules in Favor of State Funding for Religious Education

The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the state of Montana’s exclusion of religious schools from a tax credit program violates the U.S. Constitution.  The ruling is an important victory for advocates of public funding for religious schools but a blow to opponents such as teachers’ union officials who say it could lead to the defunding of public school systems.   It also marks a win for the Trump Administration, which has elevated the cause of religious freedom and sided with three mothers who challenged Montana’s ban on using publicly-funded scholarship funds for religious education.  In a 5-4 decision, the high court held that the Montana rule “discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation” of religious liberties under the U.S. Constitution.   FILE – In this image from video, presiding officer Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts speaks during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 28, 2020.All five conservative justices on the court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, joined the majority opinion while the court’s four liberal justices dissented. Roberts wrote the majority opinion.   “Montana’s [no government aid] provision bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools,” the chief justice wrote.  “The provision also bars parents who wish to send their children to a religious school from those same benefits, again solely because of the religious character of the school.”   In a dissent, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that because “the state court’s decision does not so discriminate, I would reject petitioners’ free exercise claim” under the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution’s first amendment bars Congress from making laws prohibiting the “free exercise” of religion.  State constitutions have similar provisions. At issue before the justices was whether public funding for religious education violates the U.S. Constitution.     In 2015, the state legislature in Montana established a program that provides tax credits to people who give money to organizations that award scholarships for private schools.  The majority of private schools in Montana are religiously affiliated.   Because Montana’s constitution bars government funding for churches and religious schools, the state department of revenue later created a rule that the scholarships could not be used for religious schools.    Kendra Espinoza of Kalispell, Montana stands with her daughters outside the U.S. Supreme Court, Jan. 22, 2020 in Washington. Espinoza was the lead plaintiff in the case.Three mothers who were barred from using scholarship funds to send their daughters to a Christian school challenged the rule, arguing that it “discriminated on the basis of their religious views and the religious nature of the school they had chosen.” The Montana Supreme Court ruled against them, striking down the program on the grounds that without the religious prohibition, the scholarship tax credit program would violate the state constitution.   The question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the U.S. Constitution’s “free exercise clause” barred Montana from applying its constitutional ban on funding religious education.  Writing for the majority, Roberts said it did. “Because the Free Exercise Clause barred the application of the no-aid provision here, the Montana Supreme Court had no authority to invalidate the [tax break] program on the basis of that provision,” Roberts wrote. Attorney General William Barr hailed the decision as “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,'” Barr said in a statement. “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.”   Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called ruling “a seismic shock that threatens both public education and religious liberty.” “It is a radical departure from our Constitution, American history and our values,” Weingarten said. “As Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in her dissent, this ruling is ‘perverse.’” 



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