On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down a Montana provision prohibiting state aid to religious schools.
The case, Espinosa v. Montana Department of Revenue, involved a state scholarship program that offered individuals and organizations tax credits to match donations to organizations helping students attend private schools.
The state’s Department of Revenue said that the scholarships could not be used for religious schools, a ruling which was upheld in the Montana Supreme Court.
Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Roberts, who joined conservative judges in the vote against Montana’s prohibition, said that the lower court ruling “bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools.”
“A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
The Supreme Court ruling is a victory for advocates of school choice, and makes a win more likely for plaintiffs in a similar case, Carson et al. v Makin, in Maine.
Three Maine families filed a lawsuit against the state’s education commissioner in 2018, claiming the sectarian exclusion within Maine’s town tuitioning program is unconstitutional. The program, which began in 1873, pays public or private school tuition for students who live in municipalities without a secondary school. A law passed by the Maine Legislature in 1981, however, prohibits this money from being used for religious schools.
The state prohibition was upheld in a district court last June, and the case was quickly submitted to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which began hearings in January 2020.
With the Supreme Court’s decision to allow public funding for religious schools through parental choice, plaintiffs of the Maine lawsuit can move forward with greater confidence. The ruling supports arguments that Maine’s law violates the free exercise of religion and unfairly discriminates against families.
Timothy Keller, who represents the Maine families as well as the plaintiffs in the Montana case, says that the Maine law must be overturned after the Supreme Court hearing.
“Excluding religious schools from the array of options open to Maine parents who receive the tuition benefit, simply because they are religious schools, is now clearly unconstitutional,” he said.