One week from today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an important case dealing with whether taxpayers can be forced to fund religious education and religious discrimination.
The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, began after Montana legislators passed a neo-voucher scheme called the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program in 2015. Similar to programs proposed in other states, the convoluted plan funneled taxpayer money into the coffers of private religious schools.
It’s clear what Big Sky lawmakers were up to: They wanted to subsidize private religious education, even though Montana’s Constitution contains a provision explicitly protecting residents from being forced to support “direct or indirect” tax aid for religious purposes.
The Montana Supreme Court correctly struck down the plan, calling it a clear violation of the state constitution. More than 90 percent of private school vouchers in Montana funded private religious schools, and 70 percent of all private schools in the state teach a religious curriculum.
The U.S. Supreme Court now will hear the case, which is troubling. The high court’s decision could set a dangerous precedent, eroding church-state separation not just in Montana, but in three-quarters of U.S. states. Voucher proponents have made it crystal clear that they want to pave the way for private school voucher schemes across the country by gutting the religious freedom provisions that exist in the constitutions of at least 37 states.
Not only do private school voucher programs force taxpayers to fund religious education, but they also force taxpayers to fund discrimination. Private religious schools have free rein to discriminate against children and families if they don’t share the school’s religious beliefs, if a student or parent is LGBTQ, if the child has a disability, or if they don’t follow a school’s religious tenets such as accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior or having premarital sex.
AU’s research shows that of the 12 religious schools participating in Montana’s voucher program, at least 10 had discriminatory policies.
In November, Americans United, joined by 17 other civil rights and religious freedom organizations, filed a legal brief urging the high court to respect the traditional American principle of religious freedom.
“The founders believed that it was critical to protect individuals’ freedom of conscience against the coercive extraction of tax funds to support religion,” observes the brief. “They also thought it vital to shield religion and religious institutions from the deleterious effects of governmental support and interference: dependency of religious institutions on the state, compromise of religious beliefs, and strife among religious denominations. They therefore exhorted against public subsidies for religious ministries – including religious education, which is not only a vital function of religious ministries but also essential to generating adherents and maintaining those ministries over time and across communities.”
Never before has the Supreme Court ruled that states must fund religious education. It would be an extraordinary federal intrusion into the constitutional and public education affairs of our states.
We must protect the precedent that all states have the right to ensure taxpayer dollars are not used to fund religious education. This is the core of our fundamental American principle of religious freedom – that everyone has the right to support their faith, or no faith at all, as long as they don’t harm others.
The U.S. Supreme Court should uphold the founders’ vision and make it clear that forcing Americans to pay for someone else’s religion is fundamentally unconstitutional and un-American.