January 2019 Church & State - January 2019

Montana Supreme Court Strikes Down Tuition Tax Credit Plan

  Rob Boston

In a 5-2 decision released Dec. 12, the Montana Supreme Court invalidated the state’s tuition tax credit program that was passed by the state legislature in 2015.

Americans United 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.

The court ruled that the 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 … for any sectarian purpose or to aid any … school … controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”

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 Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue case, urging the state’s high court to strike down the scheme.

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