Government-Supported Religion

The Supreme Court Has Accepted A Case That Could Undermine Church-State Separation And Public Schools

  Rob Boston

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning announced that it will hear a case from Montana that could have potentially devastating consequences for separation of church and state.

The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, concerns a state tuition tax credit program that allows taxpayers to donate to organizations that grant “scholarships” for students attending private schools, the majority of which are religious in Montana. Donors would then receive full credit on their tax bills. It’s a voucher-like plan that’s designed to funnel public money to private schools.

Montana’s Supreme Court struck the program down late in 2018, holding that it violated Article X, Section 6 of the Montana Constitution. That provision bars “any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies … for any sectarian purpose or to aid any … school … controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”

Americans United had filed a legal brief in the case opposing the tax credit scheme. In a press statement about the Montana high court ruling, AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said, “Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education – that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom. The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”

The fight over vouchers is playing out in state courts these days because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that states may establish voucher plans under certain conditions, asserting that such plans don’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. But many state constitutions have church-state language that is much more explicit and flatly bars the diversion of tax money to religious schools. Americans United and its allies have used those provisions to invalidate voucher plans in several states.

An adverse ruling in the Espinoza case could undermine those provisions – or even wipe them out entirely. Inevitably, that would open the floodgates to lots more taxpayer money flowing to religious schools. That’s bound to place funding for our public schools in jeopardy.

In short, the fate of public education and church-state separation may hang in the balance in this case. Americans United is going to do all it can to protect both.


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