In a ruling that will open the door to more public funding for religious education, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of parents in Montana seeking to use a state scholarship program to send their children to religious schools.
The court said that a Montana tax credit program that directed money to private schools could not exclude religious schools.
The 5-4 ruling was penned by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by the court’s four conservative justices.
“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,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
Tuesday’s opinion is a huge win for supporters of school choice programs, a hallmark of the Trump administration, and it will also encourage other states to push for similar programs.
The ruling comes as the supporters of religious liberty, including the Trump administration, have hoped the court’s solidified conservative majority would emphasize that the Constitution’s Free Exercise clause requires neutrality toward religion. Three low income mothers had sought to use the funds from a state initiative toward their kids’ religious education.
The New York Times adds some context:
The case involved a Montana program enacted in 2015 “to provide parental and student choice in education.” The program was financed by private contributions eligible for tax credits, and it provided scholarships to students in private schools.
Soon after the program started, a state agency said students attending religious schools were not eligible in light of a provision of the state’s Constitution that bars the use of government money for “any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect or denomination.”
Three mothers with children at Stillwater Christian School, in Kalispell, Mont., sued, saying that provision of the state Constitution violated the protections of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled against them, shutting down the entire program for all schools, religious or not.
The decision built on earlier rulings on the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. In 2017, for instance, in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the Supreme Court ruled that Missouri had violated the First Amendment by barring religious institutions from a state program to make playgrounds safer, even though the state’s Constitution called for strict separation of church and state.
“The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority.
At the same time, writing for four justices, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized the narrowness of the court’s decision. “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” he wrote. “We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”