WASHINGTON – The US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Montana – and by extension, many other states – violate the First Amendment when they ban public funding of religious institutions like schools.
It's a mighty blow for school choice, especially when the choice involves religious schools. The Court ruled 5-to-4 if you're going to offer a state benefit for private secular schools, you can't ban it from their religious counterparts.
Moms vs. Montana
This case – Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue – involved moms like Kendra Espinoza suing Montana, claiming the state was discriminating against their children's religious schools. In the end, that's how the Court's conservative majority saw it, too.
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."
He left no doubt that the Court's majority, in this case, felt that Montana's program that cut out faith-based schools was discriminatory.
"Montana's no-aid provision bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools," Roberts 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."
Blaine Amendments Defanged & Dead
The Court's ruling defangs statewide provisions known as Blaine Amendments, enacted into dozens of state constitutions and that were originally meant to discriminate against Catholics pouring into the United States in the 1800s.
The Becket Fund for religious liberty put out an animated video on these which says, "Blaine Amendments were written during a wave of anti-Catholic bigotry in the 1800s to stop Catholic schools from receiving aid. And today they're used to discriminate against people of many faiths."
Becket Senior Counsel Diana Verm told CBN News, "The Court recognizes that Blaine Amendments have a bigoted history and that history makes them unconstitutional."
She added, "Today they've been used to exclude any religious group from government programs, and I'm happy to say that that discrimination should now be over."
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate for school choice, had harsher words, saying, "Montana and other states should be very clear about this historic decision. Your bigoted Blaine Amendments and other restrictions like them are unconstitutional, dead, and buried."
'Fabulous Decision for Families, for Educational Freedom'
"This is a fabulous decision for families, for educational freedom," said Tommy Schultz of the pro-school choice American Federation for Children. "What this does is it allows families in dozens of states to engage in a real conversation about having school choice programs."
The four more liberal justices all voted against Espinoza, with Justice Stephen Breyer writing, "If for 250 years, we have drawn a line at forcing taxpayers to pay the salaries of those who teach their faith from the pulpit, I do not see how we can today require Montana to adopt a different view respecting those who teach in the classroom."
Not Everyone's Happy with the Ruling
Sam Gerard of the American Humanist Association isn't pleased with the ruling, saying, "We don't believe that you as a taxpayer should be compelled to fund anybody else's religious practices."
"We are for school options," assured Debbie Allen of the Secular Coalition for America, but added, "We do not believe in supporting religious institutions with taxpayer dollars."
But Kendra Espinoza points out religious schools often do a better job than the public schools, so they are worthy of support.
'I Wanted More for My Children'
She explained, "I don't feel there's enough teaching at the public schools to teach my children how to develop character. And I wanted more for my children. I wanted them to be challenged more academically rather than just coast through and graduate."
The White House weighed in with a statement, saying, "We celebrate today's Supreme Court decision on religious schools, which removes one of the biggest obstacles to better educational opportunities for all children. States may no longer hide behind rules motivated by insidious bias against Catholics, known as Blaine Amendments, to exclude religious schools from public benefits."
A Turning Point in a 'Sad & Static History'
"This decision represents a turning point in the sad and static history of American education," Education Secretary DeVos said. "And it will spark a new beginning of education that focuses first on students and their needs."
She concluded, "I'm calling on all states to now seize the extraordinary opportunity to expand all education options at all schools to every single student in America."
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