In a 5-4 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting religious schools from receiving state funding in school choice programs violates the First Amendment right to freely exercise religion. The court’s decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue was split along ideological lines, with Chief Justice Roberts, along with Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Alito and Kavanaugh comprising the majority, while Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor dissented. The ruling is seen as a victory for those in favor of school choice, which the Trump Administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been avid proponents of.
The case centered around a 2015 Montana program that provided tax credits for those who donated to scholarships for Montana private schools – 70% of which are religious. As the Montana Constitution contains a “Blaine Amendment” or “no-aid” provision which bans state funds from being used for religious institutions, the Montana Department of Revenue stopped the program from applying to scholarships for religious schools. Three parents using the program filed a lawsuit against the state. In 2018, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the entire program was unconstitutional and required it to be dismantled. The Supreme Court’s ruling overturned that of the Montana Supreme Court, arguing that the state was violating the First Amendment right to freely exercise religion by barring only religious schools from participating in the program.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “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.” The opinion was based in part off of the argument by religious-freedom proponents that Blaine Amendments are grounded in the desire to discriminate against Catholics.
Justice Breyer, in a dissenting opinion, expressed worry that the ruling would blur the separation between church and state, while Justice Sotomayor went as far as to call the ruling “perverse.”
“We celebrate today’s Supreme Court decision,” stated the White House. “States may no longer hide behind rules motivated by insidious bias against Catholics, known as Blaine Amendments, to exclude religious schools from public benefits.” Secretary DeVos similarly praised the ruling, calling the decision a “turning point in the sad and static history of American education” and arguing “it will spark a new beginning of education that focuses first on students and their needs.”
Supporters of public education criticized the ruling, arguing that it will divert badly-needed funds away from public schools. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, exclaimed that “never in more than two centuries of American history has the free exercise clause of the First Amendment been wielded as a weapon to defund and dismantle public education.” President of the National Education Association Lily Eskelsen García stated that “the detrimental impact this decision will have on students through this country is shameful and unacceptable.”
Currently, 18 states utilize programs similar to the one struck down in Montana, and 8 states have Blaine Amendments. These programs and amendments will likely be dismantled or altered following the ruling.
Sources: U.S. News 6/30/20; SCOTUSblog; CNN 6/30/20; SCOTUSblog 6/30/20; White House Press Release 6/30/20; USA Today 6/30/20; National Education Association Press Release 6/30/20