The Montana Supreme Court delivered a win for church-state separation and public education last week when it struck down the state’s private school voucher program.
Americans United, joined by other civil-rights organizations, had urged the court through a friend-of-the-court brief to prevent the voucher scheme – called a tuition tax credit program – from funding private, religious education. Our brief explained that the program violated the “no-aid” provision in Montana’s constitution, which protects residents’ religious freedom by ensuring taxpayer money isn’t used for religious purposes – including religious education.
The Montana Supreme Court agreed with us: “We ultimately conclude the Tax Credit Program aids sectarian schools in violation of Article X, Section 6, and that it is unconstitutional in all of its applications,” wrote the court majority.
“Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education – that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom,” said AU president and CEO Rachel Laser. “The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”
The state’s legislature passed the tuition tax credit program in 2015. It allows “donors” to give money to organizations that pay for students’ private school tuition, then the state gives the “donors” a full credit on their tax bills – so it’s not really a donation after all. This is essentially a voucher program because it funnels public money to private schools.
The Montana Department of Revenue blocked program money from being used for religious education because department officials correctly determined doing so would violate the state constitution. Residents who wanted taxpayer money to send children to religious schools sued the department in response.
“Tuition-tax credit programs like Montana’s are a transparent attempt to circumvent state constitutions that prohibit public funding of religious education,” said AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “The Montana Supreme Court correctly saw through this money-laundering scheme. Other state courts should follow suit.”
Voucher proponents have been trying to use the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer to justify undermining no-aid provisions in state constitutions. The high court ruled that a Missouri church could participate in a state-funded grant program to resurface its preschool playground, even though Missouri’s constitution has a no-aid clause.
But as Americans United explained in its brief, the Trinity Lutheran decision was narrowly tailored to the Missouri case and only involved funding for a non-religious purpose. That’s quite different from allowing taxpayer money to fund explicitly religious education, and the Montana court was right to strike down the voucher program for this reason.
Sadly, the fight isn’t over: The libertarian legal group Institute of Justice says it plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. And similar lawsuits are challenging no-aid clauses in other states, including Maine and Washington.
Americans United will continue the fight to ensure that public money funds public schools, and that no taxpayers are forced to fund religious education. You can join us by becoming a member today!