Three Montana moms won a significant victory for their children—and others—at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. The High Court ruled that the state’s ban on their use of public school scholarship funds at the school of their choice—which happened to be a religious school—was unconstitutional.
In 2015, the Montana State Legislature created a tax credit in which a taxpayer’s contribution to a Student Scholarship Organization (SSO) would be reimbursed up to $150 per person. In that state, SSOs use this donation revenue to fund student scholarships to attend Qualified Education Providers (QEPs), which amounts to all private schools.
But soon after, the Montana Department of Revenue enacted Rule 1, which narrows the definition of QEPs to exclude religious schools. They pointed to Article X, Section 6(1) of the Montana Constitution, which “prohibits the State from directly or indirectly providing financial aid to sectarian schools, which are schools “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”
Three mothers of low-income students, led by Kendra Espinoza sued the state government, arguing that Rule 1 was unconstitutional because it penalized parents for choosing to send their children to religious schools. Espinoza had been using the scholarship to send her child to the Stillwater Christian School, while the other two mothers were in the process of applying.
The District of Montana ruled in favor of Espinoza, but this was reversed by the Montana Supreme Court. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court and was argued before the Court in January.
In a decisive victory for advocates of both school choice and religious liberty, Chief Justice Roberts, writing the opinion for the five-person majority (The Court), ruled in favor of Espinoza and reversed the decision of the Montana Supreme Court.
The Court found that:
- Montana’s scholarship program did not violate the Establishment Clause, and it is not unlawful for parents to use funds from broadly available government programs to send their children to religious schools.
- The promulgation of Rule 1 was a violation of the Free Exercise clause, as it inhibited the right of parents to provide their children with a religiously influenced education.
- Blaine Amendments, including Montana’s, are “born of bigotry”, anti-Catholic, and do not contribute to our understanding of the Free Exercise clause, thereby making them legally unenforceable.
The scholarship program as originally created by the Montana State Legislature should now be reinstated (since it was abolished by the Montana Supreme Court rather than the Legislature), and Kendra Espinoza should be able to send her child to a religious school. This decision serves as a vital clarification for school choice and religious liberty advocates both in Montana and around the country. States can now create and implement scholarship programs that treat all students equally without as much fear of legal reprisal.
Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue removes some of the last vestiges of anti-Catholic discrimination from the American legal system. No longer can religious schools and families be denied access to an education on the basis of faith and faith alone.