WASHINGTON (AP) – States cannot cut religious schools from programs that send public money to private education, a divided Supreme Court said Tuesday.
By a majority of 5-4 votes with the conservatives in the majority, the judges supported a Montana scholarship program that allows state tax relief for private education in which almost all recipients attend religious schools.
The Montana Supreme Court had scrapped the K-12 private education scholarship program created by the legislator in 2015 to make donors eligible for a tax credit of up to $ 150. The state judge had ruled that the tax credit was in conflict with the prohibition of the Montana Constitution on state aid to religious schools.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the state government itself violated the religious freedom, embodied in the United States Constitution, of parents who want scholarships to help pay for their children’s private education. “A state does not have to subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do this, it cannot exclude some private schools just because they are religious, “Roberts wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described the ruling as “perverse.”
“Without any need or jurisdiction to do so, the court seems to require a state to restore a tax credit program that the Constitution did not demand in the first place,” she said.
Parents whose children attend religious schools have filed a lawsuit to maintain the program. The Supreme Court decision upholds the rights of families “to practice our religion at our discretion,” said Kendra Espinoza, the chief prosecutor in the lawsuit whose two daughters attend Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana, near Glacier National Park, go.
About three dozen states have similar provisions on no aid in their constitutions. Courts in some states have relied on those provisions to scrap funding for religious schools.
Two states with existing private education programs, Maine and Vermont, could see rapid efforts to compel them to allow religious schools to participate.
Attorney General William Barr praised the statement as “a major victory for religious freedom and equality in the United States.” The Trump administration supported the parents’ appeal.
Advocates for allowing state money for private education said the court recognized in its decision that parents should not be penalized for sending their children to schools that are better than public schools.
“This opinion will pave the way for more states to go through school choice programs that allow parents to choose a school that best suits their child’s individual needs, regardless of whether those schools are religious or non-religious,” said Erica Smith, senior lawyer at the Institute of Justice, which represented the parents in their lawsuit.
But the president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, who has over 12,000 teachers and other school workers as union members, called the decision a slap in the face for its members and the communities they serve.
Today’s decision runs counter to Montana’s commitment to public education, our children, and our constitution. Extremist special interests are manipulating our tax code to rob Montana children of high-quality education and fill the pockets of those who run exclusive, discriminatory private schools, “said union president Amanda Curtis.
In a separate unanimous opinion, Justice Samuel Alito pointed to evidence of anti-Catholic bigotry that he believed motivated the original adoption of the Montana provision and other similar motives in the 1800s, although the Montana Constitution was revised with intact provision in 1972. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose two daughters attend Catholic schools, made a similar point during discussions in January when he spoke of the “grotesque religious bigotry” against Catholics at the root of the amendment.
The decision was the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions, which now include Trump-appointed Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, who support religion-based discrimination claims. In 2014, the judges allowed for-profit family businesses with religious objections to get away from an obligation to pay for birth control for women who are covered by their health insurance. In 2017, the court ruled that a Missouri church was excluded from state grants to place softer surfaces in playgrounds.
The Supreme Court also weighs a Trump administration policy that would make it easier for employers to claim a religious or moral waiver and avoid paying for contraception for women under their health plans. Yet another case would protect religious institutions from more claims of labor discrimination.
The Supreme Court has also maintained some school voucher programs, and other courts have sanctioned others.
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