The Supreme Court on Tuesday delivered a landmark decision that strengthens the right of religious schools to obtain public funds, ruling that Montana violated the First Amendment when it excluded faith-based educators from a scholarship program supported by public monies.
Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the decision for a 5-4 Court, over three dissents from the liberal justices. The decision comes as surveys show support for President Donald Trump slipping among religious conservatives, and could provide a needed buoy to his supporters, as a Court he purported to stack with conservative jurists has delivered victories for liberals on abortion and LGBT rights in recent days.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, long a champion of school vouchers, was on hand for oral arguments before the high court in January. DeVos and GOP lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) have proposed a $5 billion tax credit to support private education, through which participating states provide dollar-for-dollar creditsto taxpayers who contribute to scholarship programs.
The decision is a victory for religious conservatives and school choice groups, who were deeply invested in a case they viewed as a potential landmark. In the past, school choice advocates maintained a modest posture in the high court, asking the justices to uphold low-dollar voucher programs in Ohio and Arizona. In Tuesday’s case, they posed a grander proposition—the Constitution requires states to include religious schools in their student aid programs.
The Montana legislature enacted a school choice program in 2015 that provided a tax credit of up to $150 for donations to non-profit scholarship funds. In turn, those organizations make payments to qualifying families who wish to send their children to private schools, including religious institutions. About two-thirds of private schools in Montana have a religious affiliation.
Shortly after the program took effect, a state agency issued a rule prohibiting recipient families from using their scholarship awards at religious schools. The agency cited the Montana constitution’s no religious aid provision as justification for the rule. Three plaintiffs—Kendra Espinoza, Jeri Anderson, and Jaime Schaefer—who wish to send their children to Stillwater Christian School using scholarship funds challenged the rule in state court. The Montana Supreme Court struck down the tax credit program in its entirety, prompting an appeal to the justices.
Teacher’s unions and leftwing civil liberties groups see the case as a serious threat to public education and religious neutrality in civic life. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teacher’s union in the nation, filed an amicus brief urging the justices to uphold Montana’s no religious aid law.
“Make no mistake, if a majority of the justices side with the petitioners, the Supreme Court will be responsible for unleashing a virtual earthquake in this country that threatens both religious liberty and public education,” AFT president Randi Weingarten said after oral arguments in January.
The Trump administration supported the plaintiffs before the high court.
The case is No. 18-1195 Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
Kevin Daley covers the Supreme Court for the Washington Free Beacon. He has covered the Supreme Court since 2016. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.