Supreme Court may allow public aid to religious schools
The Supreme Court appeared ready this week to knock down state rules that block government aid to religious schools, a potential watershed victory for the Christian right. The court’s five conservatives seemed to side with the Trump administration during oral arguments for Espinoza v. Montana, in which three low-income parents claim their rights were violated when the state excluded religious schools from a 2015 state tax credit program. The Montana Supreme Court ultimately struck down the entire program, saying it violated the state constitution’s ban on taxpayer dollars supporting religious education, even indirectly. Thirty-six state constitutions have “no-aid” provisions similar to Montana’s. Chief Justice John Roberts compared the parents’ plight to racial bias. “How is that different from religion, which is also protected under the First Amendment?” he asked.
The case could have far-reaching consequences, as the court increasingly expands the ability of faith-based institutions to receive taxpayer dollars. In 2017, for example, the justices ruled 7-2 that a Lutheran church in Missouri could use public funds to resurface its playground, with Roberts calling the state’s restrictions “odious to our Constitution.” Montana’s tax credits were meant to benefit private schools in general, but the bulk of them ended up going to religious schools. Now that the program has been eliminated, several justices questioned whether the issue is still relevant. “I am having trouble seeing where the harm in this case is,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “There is no discrimination at this point.”
What the columnists said
This case could be a game changer for victims of religious discrimination, said Michael Helfand in The Wall Street Journal. It’s been “obvious for a long time” that laws like Montana’s “single out religious institutions for worse treatment than their secular counterparts.” In 2017, the Lutheran church playground case focused on “discriminatory impact,” but the justices now have an opportunity to dramatically broaden religious liberty, in areas such as school choice, by cracking down on “discriminatory intent.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh correctly noted that the “no aid” laws are “rooted in grotesque religious bigotry,” said Nick Sibilla in TheAtlantic.com. These provisions are often called Blaine Amendments, after the congressman who nearly passed a federal constitutional amendment in 1876 barring state funding for religious schools. Blaine Amendments targeted Catholic immigrants who felt public schools clashed with their values. Across the country, these laws continue to “hide their prejudice behind a fig leaf of neutrality.”
That has things exactly backward, said Rachel Laser in WashingtonPost.com. “Private religious schools don’t adhere to the same nondiscrimination laws that public schools do.” Those schools have denied admission “because a student or parent is LGBTQ,” and fired teachers “for being pregnant and unmarried.” Funding religious institutions while giving them exemptions from laws they don’t like “is not equal treatment—it’s religious privilege.”