The Supreme Court Ruling on Taxpayer Funding for Private and/or Religious Schools
In a string of new cases being ruled on by the United States Supreme Court, the Court contemplated whether or not Montana’s revenue department legally banned tax-credit scholarships that went to religious schools. In a narrow 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held Montana’s tax credit program could not exclude religious schools.
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The Background of the Ban on Taxpayer Funding Benefiting Religious Schools in Montana
In 2015, Montana legislature allowed residents to receive tax credit up to a certain amount for contribution to a scholarship program for kids. The donations were then used to fund tuition scholarships for children who wished to go to private school. Unsurprisingly, many private schools carry some sort of religious affiliation.
Soon after the start of this program, the Montana Department of Revenue excluded religiously affiliated schools, citing constitutional concerns. The Montana Supreme Court invalidated the entire program, holding that the state Constitution prohibits funding to religious schools.
Arguments For and Against Allowing Religious Schools to Benefit from Taxpayer Funding
The Institute for Justice petitioned the United States Supreme Court to rule on the issue, citing violations of the equal protection clause of the federal constitution. The Department of Justice joined in on behalf of the Plaintiffs, arguing that the Montana Supreme Court violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
The State of Montana argued that it was constitutional as it kept church and state apart. It was adequately balancing the liberties of free exercise of religion while balancing freedom from religion.
Key Opinions from the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Montana State Supreme Court erred in prohibiting funds from going to religious schools. In reaching its opinion, Chief Justice Roberts reasoned that the Court “accept the Montana Supreme Court’s interpretation of state law…and we assess whether excluding religious schools and affected families from that program was consistent with the Federal Constitution.” Espi noza, et al. v. Montana Department of Revenue, et al. No. 18-1195, pg. 7 (2020). The Court further reasoned that the prohibition was based in religious status and not religious use. Status based discrimination remains status based even if its goals is to prevent the aid from being used for religious purposes. Applying strict scrutiny, the toughest form of judicial review, the Court held that the State of Montana’s bar on religious schools receiving aid discriminates based on religious status.
Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch, in their concurring opinion, that this case involves the Free Exercise Clause and not the Establishment clause. As a result, the law was reinstated. The Judgment of the Montana Supreme Court was reversed and sent back for further proceedings that were in accordance with the United States Supreme Court’s ruling.
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An Overview of the Ruling
Paying attention to current events and want to understand more about the United States Supreme Court’s ruling on the state ban on private and/or religious school funding? Here’s an overview:
- In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held Montana’s tax credit program could not exclude religious schools
- In 2015, Montana allowed residents to receive tax credits for a contribution to a scholarship program for kids that benefited private religious schools
- The Montana Supreme Court invalidated the program holding that the state Constitution prohibits funding to religious schools
- The Judgment of the Montana Supreme Court was reversed and sent back for further proceedings that were in accordance with the United States Supreme Court’s ruling
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