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Mont. scholarship fund excludes religious schools

The Supreme Court didn’t decide many groundbreaking cases in its 2018-19 term, but the new term opened this morning and things are likely to be a little different this time.

Glacier National Park, Montana (TheBigMK/iStockPhoto)

The issues of immigration, abortion, gun control, and transgender rights all have potentially monumental cases on the Court’s docket, with decisions affecting all four of those big issues expected by June.

One case of great interest to education advocates comes in the form of an appeal from the Montana Supreme Court. SCOTUS will have to decide whether the state can exclude religious schools from a state scholarship program, the New York Times reports.

Like many states, Montana has a clause in the state constitution that prohibits tax dollars from aiding religious groups. In other words, the government cannot support one religious group, including those that establish schools, in favor of others.

The state set up a scholarship program that would help families offset the cost of tuition at private schools, but three mothers who applied for scholarships from the program were denied because they wanted to send their children to a Christian school.

In their lawsuit, they charged the state with writing a constitution that violated provisions of the United States Constitution on religious freedom (1st Amendment) and equal protection (14th Amendment) grounds.

The Montana Supreme Court rejected their challenge and shut down the entire scholarship program, since it was clearly not going to be possible to send the scholarship money to schools that were not affiliated with a religious group or church.

The case, Espinoza v Montana Department of Revenue, No. 18-1195, is related to the 2017 case known as Trinity Lutheran Church v Comer. The state of Missouri could not exclude religious institutions from a state program to make playgrounds safer, the Supreme Court ruled, even though the state’s constitution called for strict separation of church and state.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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