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June 30, 2020 3:18 pm

Supreme Court Rules Montana’s Exclusion of Religious Schools From State Scholarship Program as Unconstitutional

avatar by Jackson Richman / JNS.org

The United States Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org – The US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Montana’s exclusion of religious schools, including Jewish ones, from a state scholarship program violates the Constitution.

The 5-4 decision is a win for Jewish and other religious schools.

The case started in 2015 when Montana’s legislature passed a bill giving up to $150 in tax credits for individuals who donate to scholarship funds for private-school students. The state’s tax authorities deemed religious schools ineligible to receive such donations.

The Montana Supreme Court, citing a state constitutional prohibition on state assistance to religious schools, struck down the entire program.

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Delivering the court’s opinion, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “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.”

In an opinion concurring with the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: “Catholic and Jewish schools sprang up because the com­mon schools were not neutral on matters of religion.”

“Faced with public schools that were culturally Protestant and with curriculum[s] and textbooks that were, consequently, rife with material that Catholics and Jews found offensive, many Catholics and Orthodox Jews created separate schools,” and those “who could afford to do so sent their chil­dren to” those schools,” continued Alito, citing a brief by the Orthodox Union that was submitted in a similar Supreme Court case in 2016.

The White House called the ruling by the nation’s highest court one that “removes one of the biggest obstacles to better educational opportunities for all children.”

‘All of America’s children deserve a first-rate education’

Yehoshua Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, a nonpartisan group advocating for school choice, told JNS that the decision was “a major victory for religious liberty and for families seeking to provide their children with an education in accordance with their religious tradition and values. This decision makes clear that no state may discriminate against families or schools solely on the basis of their religious character. The bigoted legacy of James Blaine is dead.”

A Republican US representative from Maine who served from 1863 to 1876, and was House Speaker from 1869 to 1875 followed by a stint in the Senate from 1876 to 1881, Blaine inspired amendments known as “Blaine” laws to deny taxpayer funds to religious schools, especially Catholic ones.

The Orthodox Union, along with some other Jewish organizations, celebrated the ruling, while others, including the Religious Action Center of Religious Judaism (RAC), slammed it.

“The essential promise of the First Amendment’s religion clauses is to guarantee religious freedom in the United States by requiring government neutrality toward religion,” said OU Executive Director for Public Policy Nathan Diament in a statement. “A state discriminating against religion is just as unconstitutional as a state promoting one particular religion.”

He continued, saying “in its ruling today in Espinoza, the Supreme Court has clearly rejected any kind of discrimination based upon the religious ‘status’ of a family, school or student. The high court makes clear that the Free Exercise Clause demands the equal treatment of religious citizens and institutions in government programs.”

However, the RAC said in a statement that “tuition tax credits and other types of school vouchers divert desperately needed funding from public schools, these programs also violate separation of church and state when such funding is directed towards religious schools.”

“Government funding to religious schools requires taxpayers to support religious institutions and beliefs that may violate their own, something the First Amendment was intended to avoid,” continued the RAC. “Conversely, such government funding is bad for religion, for with government funding comes government rules, regulations, monitoring and interference. Religious education must always be the responsibility of the family and faith community, not the government.”

At the end of the day, noted the RAC, “rather than implementing private-school voucher programs, the government should invest in public schools to make them safer, stronger and more equitable. All of America’s children deserve a first-rate education.”

Howard Slugh, founder and general counsel for the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, said the RAC’s arguments were incorrect.

“The Constitution ensures that religious Americans will not be discriminated against because of their faith. States are not allowed to say that will fund secular private schools and not religious schools,” he told JNS. “There is this strange commonly held notion that states may not be allowed to give funds to religious schools and thus are required to discriminate against them, that’s 180 degrees from the truth. States are prohibited from discriminating against religious schools.”

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