Espinoza v Montana Ruling Finds Montana DOR Violated First Amendment

In a 5-4 decision, Justice Roberts writes that prohibiting religious schools from publicly-funded education programs violates the First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause of the US Constitution. In a shot directly at the basis for Blaine amendments of many states, banning entities from public programs simply because they are religious is discriminatory. In particular, the Alito concurrence focuses on the fact that “Montana’s no-aid provision retains the bigoted code language used throughout state Blaine Amendments”.

“Today’s ruling adds further structural support for school choice programs to include all types of schools in their offerings to families,” Jim Bender said. “Wisconsin’s school choice programs are made stronger with this Supreme Court decision.”

The full Espinoza v Montana ruling can be found here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-1195_g314.pdf

From the ruling:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Montana Legislature established a program to pro­vide tuition assistance to parents who send their children to private schools. The program grants a tax credit to any­one who donates to certain organizations that in turn award scholarships to selected students attending such schools. When petitioners sought to use the scholarships at a religious school, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program. The Court relied on the “no-aid” provision of the State Constitution, which prohibits any aid to a school controlled by a “church, sect, or denomination.” The ques­tion presented is whether the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution barred that application of the no-aid provision.

Held: The application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution. Pp. 6–22.

(a) The Free Exercise Clause “protects religious observers against unequal treatment” and against “laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status.” Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U. S. ___, ___. In Trinity Lutheran, this Court held that 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.”