Did you know that dozens of states still have anti-religious laws on the books that are preventing today’s children from going to the school of their choice?
I certainly didn’t. But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court did something about it.
In the late 1800’s, many states added so-called Blaine Amendments into their constitutions to prohibit government funding from going to “religious” or “sectarian” schools—code words originally aimed at “Catholic” schools. Montana is one of many states that still had one of these discriminatory laws on the books. What’s worse, Montana used this law to prevent a single mother from using the state’s private school tax credit program just because she wanted to send her three children to a non-denominational Christian school.
Thankfully, last week in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Montana’s Blaine Amendment violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. Chief Justice John Roberts writes, “A State need not subsidize private education. But once it decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
This is a huge win for school choice, religious freedom, and children. And much of the Court’s reasoning from last week was based on another Supreme Court win that ADF achieved three years ago.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of ADF client Trinity Lutheran Church. Trinity Lutheran, a church in Columbia, Missouri, had applied for a playground resurfacing grant from Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources as a part of a program that recycles scrap tire material.
Despite being highly qualified according to the program’s requirements, Trinity Lutheran was denied participation in that program because it was a religious entity. This, according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, is unconstitutional. The Court held that the government cannot exclude churches or other faith-based organizations from a public government program simply because of their beliefs.
Now, in 2020, the Supreme Court built on that important decision to ensure that all religious schools in Montana could participate in the state’s tax-credit program. The Court recognized that the Constitution requires the government to treat religious organizations no worse than secular organizations. And it concluded that Montana’s Blaine Amendment violated that requirement.
Every child deserves access to a good education, and every church, school, and citizen deserves to have their First Amendment rights protected.
As ADF Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch said, “The court was right to not allow the dead hand of 19th century anti-Catholic animus—which motivated the state constitutional provision here—to put a stranglehold on educational resources desperately needed by parents and children. This is a win for children and families, and it is a win for religious freedom.”
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