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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a Montana ban on a taxpayer-themed scholarship program for religious schools in a ruling seen as a major victory for advocates of school choice.
In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the high court’s constitutionalists in finding that a Montana scholarship program allowing residents to take a tax credit if they donate to private organizations is constitutional.
The program gave residents tax credits of up $150, with the donations used to help fund students attending a private school of their choice, Fox News reported. The state’s department of revenue issued a rule banning those tax-credit scholarships from going to any religious schools.
The Montana Supreme Court eventually struck down the entire program.
The ruling, which was written by Roberts, notes, “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.”
Under provisions of the program, Montana families receiving a scholarship initially could utilize it for any “qualified education provider,” which, according to the SCOTUS opinion, means “any private school that meets certain accreditation, testing, and safety requirements.”
However, the Montana Department of Revenue, citing provisions of the state constitution, changed the definition of “qualified education provider” to shut out any that “owned or controlled in whole or in part by any church, religious sect, or denomination.”
That change, which was disputed by the state attorney general, was reportedly based on a “no-aid” provision in the Montana constitution barring the state from providing aid to church- or religion-based schools.
But parents of kids who were attending private religious education centers sued the state and a lower court initially ruled in their favor. The court found that the tax credits were not a violation of the state constitution because they weren’t directly appropriated to religious organizations.
However, the state supreme court overruled the lower court and tossed the entire program.
“I feel that we’re being excluded simply because we are people of religious background, or because our children want to go to a religious school,” Kendra Espinoza, a lead plaintiff in the case, said after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in January, according to Fox News. “We’re here to stand up for our rights as people of faith to have the same opportunities that a secular schoolchild would have.”
In his opinion, Roberts noted that the Montana program did not violate the U.S. Constitution in any way, adding that the high court has “repeatedly held that the Establishment Clause is not offended when religious observers and organizations benefit from neutral government programs.”
He pointed out that neither side in the case in question had disputed that.
The issue was the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, which pertains to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, forbidding states from prohibiting any free exercise of religion.
Roberts found that the Montana Supreme Court made a mistake by failing to recognize that the state constitution’s “no-aid” clause was a violation of the First Amendment.
“When the Court was called upon to apply a state law no-aid provision to exclude religious schools from the program, it was obligated by the Federal Constitution to reject the invitation,” Roberts wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that there could not have been any violation of the U.S. Constitution because the state supreme court had shut down the entire program.
“Again today the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution prevents the government from treating religious organizations and schools unequally,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO and chief counsel to First Liberty Institute, the Daily Caller notes.
“The Justices made it clear that states cannot legally discriminate against religious organizations when they perform the same work secular institutions do. This is a victory for religious liberty.”
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