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Ethics & Religion
Column #2,029
July 2, 2020
Religious Advocates Win at Supreme Court
By Mike McManus

This week the Supreme Court ruled that states which aid private schools must include religious ones. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a conservative majority in a 5-4 ruling, said the Constitution's protection of the free exercise of religion requires equal treatment for religious schools and parents who want to send their children to them.

"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."

The Court declared that the Montana Supreme Court was wrong to strike down a tuition assistance program established by the state legislature in 2015. It allowed tax incentives for scholarships to private schools including religious schools. The Supreme Court said Montana could not cut families off from a scholarship program available to all because they wanted to send their children to religious schools. This ruling strengthens the bedrock principle that states cannot discriminate against their citizens because of their faith.

In a landmark ruling, Roberts said the religious protections of the U.S. Constitution prevail. It holds implications for public financing of religious institutions in other areas and continues a recent pattern of the Supreme Court erasing stark lines in the separating of church and state.

In the Montana case, the Chief Justice was joined by the court's four most conservative justices. This was a stark contrast with Roberts voting recently with the court's liberals to strike down a Louisiana abortion law.

Montana gave businesses the opportunity to pay into an exchange for tax credits. The funds were then distributed to low-income families as modest scholarships (no more than $150) to help pay for tuition at private K-12 schools. However, the Montana Department of Revenue refused to allow the scholarship money to be used in religious schools.

Therefore, a group of low-income mothers who sought to use the scholarship money to help send their children to religious schools - sued the Department of Revenue, claiming this was a violation of their First Amendment Free Exercise rights. A district court agreed with the mothers, but the Montana Supreme Court struck down the entire program to avoid conflict.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the ruling "weakened this country's long-standing commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both."

Roberts responded that the Montana Legislature did not want the program to end. "The Montana Legislature created the scholarship program; the Legislature never chose to end it." He added, "The program was eliminated by a court and not based on some innocuous principle of state law. Rather, the Montana Supreme Court invalidated the program pursuant to a state law provision that expressly discriminates on the basis of religious status."

Montana's 2015 law made no distinction as to whether parents could use the scholarships at religious or secular schools. About 70% of private schools in the state are religious.

The Montana Supreme Court said that ran counter to a state constitutional prohibition on public funds 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 challenge to the law was brought by the Institute for Justice on behalf of Kendra Espinoza, a single mother who sends her two children to a Christian school in Kalispell, Montana. "I wanted my kids to be taught with a morals- and values-based education and higher academic standards by teachers that love them and teach them from God's word and not just teach from the more liberal perspective."

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his opinion, "The Constitution forbids laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion. That guarantee protects not just the right to be a religious person, holding beliefs inwardly and secretly; it also protects the right to act on those beliefs outwardly and publicly."

Chief Justice Roberts argued that "The Free Exercise Clause protects against even indirect coercion., and a state `punishes the free exercise of religion' by disqualifying the religious from government aid as Montana did here.

"Should a state choose to create generally available scholarship programs, they may not bar families from using the money at religious schools."

The Chief Justice added, "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."



Copyright (c) 2020 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.


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