Supreme Court hears vital freedom-of-religion case

Today, the Supreme Court heard  the most important case on the intersection of religion and education to arise in decades–Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. A few years back, Montana had passed its first school-choice program, a tax-credit scheme that allowed a small tax credit for donations to scholarship programs that helped kids afford private school.

As in any state, many of Montana’s private schools are religious. Right after the state legislature passed the tax-credit statute, the Montana Department of Revenue promulgated a rule that immediately gutted the program by forbidding students attending religious schools from receiving scholarship money.

The Department based its rule on Montana’s Constitution, which says the legislature can’t “make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies . . . for any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school,” etc. Plenty of states have very similar “no-aid” clauses. Revenue claimed that scholarships for religious students under the tax-credit scheme violated the “no-aid” clause.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how bizarre this argument is. These scholarships are funded by private donations–the money never enters a public coffer. Yet Revenue thinks such donations would constitute state aid to religion because the donor gets a tiny tax credit (up to $150) for the donation. Underlying this argument is the strange notion that any money the government declines to collect from you is still the government’s money.  This would mean, for instance, that every charitable donation eligible for a tax deduction would likewise constitute a government appropriation. Revenue’s argument has always looked to me like an extremely weak pretext for blatant discrimination against religious students.

So Kendra Espinoza and a few other parents with kids at religious schools sued the Department of Revenue, claiming, among other things, that Revenue’s rule violated their free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. Kendra won at trial, and then lost spectacularly at the Montana Supreme Court. In fact, the Montana Supreme Court did something even worse than the Department of Revenue–it invalidated the entire tax-credit program, such that even students at secular private schools could no longer receive scholarship assistance.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court took up the case, and they heard oral argument today. (My colleagues and I filed an amicus brief with the Court in support of Kendra).

The oral argument transcript shows a Court divided along the typical ideological lines. The liberal justices seemed preoccupied with standing–whether the petitioners had the right to sue. One justice implied that only taxpayers (who have a financial interest because of the tax credit) and schools (who receive the scholarship money) should have the right to sue. This is a weird take, given that families and students are obviously the intended beneficiaries of the scholarship program.

A number of the justices discussed a odd quirk about the Montana Supreme Court’s decision. The basic question they raised is this: since the Montana Supreme Court took the scholarship program away from everyone, are petitioners now being treated equally? But the sole reason the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program was to prevent religious students from receiving scholarship. A government action taken for a discriminatory reason is, well, discriminatory. If the legislature had excluded religious students when it enacted the program, the program would still stand. And if the legislature tried to enact the same program, providing equal treatment to religious and secular students alike, the Court would strike it down. That’s discrimination based on religious status–pretty straightforward.

One justice cited to James Madison’s famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, arguing that the founders wouldn’t have wanted public funds flowing to religious schools like this (again no public funds were flowing to Montana religious schools under this program, but why let accuracy get in the way of a good narrative). That’s a terrible misreading of Madison. The Memorial and Remonstrance was an attack on preferential aid to religion, not to a program that provided public benefits to all groups, including religious ones. The difference is vital. Can the government deny churches police protection, fire protection, sewer connections, electrical service, or any other public benefit on the grounds that the government would be providing indirect public funding to religious institutions? Surely not. In fact, that’s exactly what the Supreme Court said in a recent case called Trinity Lutheran, where Missouri denied a church daycare access to a government program that helped renovate playgrounds.

There is a difference between Trinity Lutheran and this case, arguably, which is that here the money goes more directly to religious indoctrination, not something secular like playground materials. But at bottom, public funding is fungible. Providing police protection and other general public benefits obviously makes it easier for a religious institution to fulfill its religious mission.

This case should be an easy one. The government offered a benefit to all private schools. To include religious schools doesn’t “establish” religion. It just treats religious groups equally, as the Constitution requires.

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