States can’t use grant money to discriminate against religious schools, Supreme Court rules
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WASHINGTON, D.C., June 30, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Tuesday that states may not deny tuition grants to religious schools if they would award those same grants to secular private schools.
Espinoza v. Montana concerned Kendra Espinoza, a Montana mother who used a tax-credit-funded state scholarship to send her daughters to Stillwater Christian School. The Montana Supreme Court had struck down that tax-credit system on the basis of the Blaine Amendment to the Montana Constitution, which bans the use of taxpayer funds at “sectarian” schools.
Blaine Amendments, which are part of the constitutions of 37 states, were “added to state constitutions in order to enforce the nativist bigotry of the day” against Catholics, according to a Cardinal Newman Society report.
On Tuesday, the nation’s highest court sided with Espinoza and reversed the Montana justices. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, explained that while it’s ultimately up to states to decide whether to support private schools at all, if they choose to do so they cannot discriminate against some on the basis of their religious beliefs.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh joined Roberts, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
“Disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit solely because of their religious character imposes ‘a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny,’” Roberts wrote, citing the court’s 2017 ruling in Trinity Lutheran vs. Comer. “Montana's no-aid provision bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools. 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.”
Calling the majority holding “perverse,” Sotomayor claimed in her dissenting opinion that the court “appears to require a State to reinstate a tax-credit program that the Constitution did not demand in the first place.” However, the issue was not whether Montana had to keep the program as a whole, but whether it could discriminate on the basis of religious status within it.
“Today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that affirmed one of America's first freedoms, established in the First Amendment -- the right of religious freedom,” said Family Research Council (FRC) research fellow for legal & policy studies Katherine Beck Johnson. “America was founded, in part, to apply the principle that a government may not tell anyone what to believe or how to worship. For many Americans, our religion informs every aspect of our lives, from where and how we worship, to how we interact with civil society, to how to educate our children. Americans of faith even come together to form institutions united around their common goals.”
“It was high time for the Blaine Amendments to bite the dust,” Becket Fund senior counsel Diana Verm added. “Our Constitution requires equal treatment for religious people and institutions. Relying on century-old state laws designed to target Catholics to exclude all people of faith was legally, constitutionally, and morally wrong. The Court was right to kick the Blaine Amendments to the curb.”
Tuesday’s victory for religious schools follows a string of defeats for social conservatives at the nation’s highest court, each of which involved at least one justice appointed by a Republican president. But while some conservative voters have said they feel demoralized by those defeats, the fact remains that Espinoza v. Montana would have been a 7-2 ruling against religious equality without Gorsuch or Kavanaugh, who were appointed by President Donald Trump.