Three Montana mothers want the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether families can use private scholarships at religiously affiliated schools. On Wednesday, attorneys for the mothers will defend a state tax-credit program designed to generate private scholarships for Montana students to attend the schools of their choice.
In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the state Supreme Court struck down Montana’s tax credit scholarship program. State residents who contributed to the privately run program received a $150 tax credit.
The court overturned the credit to stop students from taking their private scholarships to faith-based schools. The ruling claimed state tax credits at such schools violate Montana’s Blaine Amendment.
The state’s constitutional amendment forbids any direct or indirect aid to schools owned or operated by a “church, sect, or denomination.” After the Civil War, 37 states adopted Blaine amendments to ban public funding of immigrants attending Catholic schools.
Proponents of the scholarship program claim Blaine amendments unconstitutionally discriminate against low-income parents and treat religious institutions as second-class citizens.
In Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the state of Missouri could not exclude churches from a program to provide grants to resurface playgrounds. A footnote stated the decision was limited to the facts of that particular case and did “not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
Seven of the eight justices on the court at the time supported Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion in that case. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas affirmed the decision despite minor objections. Espinoza would allow the court to rule more broadly on such religious discrimination. —Shayla Ashmore