Dec 12, 2018

In a 5-2 decision today, the Montana Supreme Court invalidated the state’s tuition tax credit program that was passed by the state legislature in 2015.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State hailed the court’s decision, which prevents public money from funding private, religious education.

“Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education – that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”

Under the state’s tuition tax credit program, taxpayers could donate to organizations that would grant “scholarships” for students attending private schools – the majority of which are religious in Montana. Donors would then receive a full credit on their tax bills. It’s a voucher-like plan that funnels public money to private schools.

“Tuition-tax credit programs like Montana’s are a transparent attempt to circumvent state constitutions that prohibit public funding of religious education,” added Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United. “The Montana Supreme Court correctly saw through this money-laundering scheme. Other state courts should follow suit.”

Americans United, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Montana and the Anti-Defamation League, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, urging the state’s high court to strike down the scheme.

The court ruled that the tax credit program runs afoul of Article X, Section 6 of the Montana Constitution. That provision bars “any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property for any sectarian purpose or to aid any … school … controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”

The provision, the court declared, prevents taxpayer funding of religious education.

“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.

Americans United’s brief in this case was drafted by Luchenitser and AU Madison Fellow Alison Tanner, together with ACLU attorneys Heather Weaver and Alex Rate and Montana attorney James Goetz.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.