June 30 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Montana blocking tax-credit-funded scholarships from parents choosing to send their children to private religious schools was unconstitutional.
At issue, was the Montana Department of Revenue's Rule 1, which prohibited families from using government aid for religious schools. Three mothers blocked by the no-aid provision from using scholarships funds for children's tuition at Stillwater Christian School sued the Department of Revenue alleging that they were discriminated against because of their religious views and schools they chose.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and families in violation of the Free Exercise Clause in the Federal Constitution.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion, joined by the court's four other conservatives.
"The Free Exercise Clause, which applies to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment, 'protects religious observers against unequal treatment' and against 'laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status,'" Roberts wrote, citing the 2017 case, Trinity Lutheran of Columbia vs. Comer. In Trinity Lutheran, the Supreme Court held that a Missouri program that denied a grant to religious school for playground resurfacing, similarly violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Tuesday's decision was a victory for lead plaintiff Kendra Espinoza, who has two daughters, the other two mothers, and other parents who want to use the state tax credit for private schools.
"I wanted my kids to have a really strong sense of right and wrong from a biblical perspective," Espinoza said. "I want them to understand that our sense of ethics and our morals come from God's word, not just man's ideas."
The decision reverses the Montana Supreme Court decision, which struck down the entire tax credit program for religious and other nonreligious private schools, citing "indirect appropriations" conflicting with the the state constitution that bars religious programs from receiving public money.
"Montana's interest in creating greater separation of church and state than the Federal Constitution requires 'cannot qualify as compelling' in the face of the infringement of free exercise here," Roberts noted in his opinion.
The case stems from a 2015 law that allows Montana residents to receive a tax credit of up to $150 for donations to approved scholarship groups for private schools and specialized programs in public schools. One scholarship organization, Big Sky, which focused on families who are in financial hardship or have children with disabilities, participated in the program. Twelve of 13 schools which received scholarship money from Big Sky were religious schools and 70 percent of all private schools in Montana have religious affiliations. The Montana Legislature allotted $3 million annually to fund the tax credits beginning in 2016 and only about 1 percent of that was used during its short run. Shortly after the program was created, the Montana Department of Revenue adopted the Rule 1, no-aid provision.
Opponents of the "no-aid" provisions call them "baby Blaine amendments," named after James G. Blaine, which sought to prevent state governments from funding schools with public money in the 19th century. The amendment failed, but many states added similar provisions to their constitutions. Critics say the amendments were bigoted reaction to immigration of Catholics to prevent funding Catholic schools.
President Donald Trump, who appointed two conservative justices to the bench and appointed Betsy DeVos, who has advocated for "faith-based education," and private schools, as education secretary, showed his support for the decision in a White House statement.
"States may no longer hide behind rules motivated by insidious bias against Catholics, known as Blaine Amendments, to exclude religious schools from public benefits. Laws that condition public benefits, like need-based academic scholarships, on religious status demonstrate state-sanctioned hostility to religion, pressure people and institutions to censor their religious views, and stigmatize disfavored religions. The Trump administration believes that school choice is a civil rights issue, and that no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school," the statement said. "President Donald J. Trump will fight for school choice, and he will always defend our first freedom: the free exercise of religion."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented along with the court's other liberal justices, arguing it's problematic since the tax benefit program no longer exists after the Montana Supreme Court struck it down under state-law grounds, and petitioners disavowed bringing a claim under the Free Exercise clause.
"Not only is the court wrong to decide this case at all, it decides it wrongly," she wrote. "In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U.S.___(2017, this court held, 'for the first time, that the constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church ... Here, the court invokes that precedent to require a state to subsidize religious schools if it enacts an education tax credit. Because this decision further 'slights both our precedents and our history,' and 'weakens this country's longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both,' I respectfully dissent."