US Supreme Court lifts ban on state aid to religious schools

Joanna Estrada
June 30, 2020

Montana's decision to leave religious schools out of a state scholarship program funded by tax credits violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a divided Supreme Court ruled this morning. "A state need not subsidize private education".

The decision is a victory for advocates of school choice, and a setback for those favoring strict interpretation of the principle of church and state separation.

The court did not say states must fund private schools.

"But once a State decides to do so, it can not disqualify some private schools exclusively because they are religious". In turn, those organizations make payments to qualifying families who wish to send their children to private schools, including religious institutions.

The court's 5-4 ruling, with conservatives in the majority, came in a dispute over a Montana scholarship program for private K-12 education that also makes donors eligible for up to $150 in state tax credits.

"This opinion will pave the way for more states to pass school choice programs that allow parents to choose a school that best meets their child's individual needs, regardless of whether those schools are religious or nonreligious", said Erica Smith, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represented the parents in their court fight.

Roughly three-dozen states have similar no-aid provisions in their constitutions.

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states may not exclude religious schools from tuition grants that support other private schools. A trial judge enjoined the rule and then the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program by a 5-2 vote on December 12, 2018, declaring it ran afoul of the state's constitution. In the past, school choice advocates maintained a modest posture in the High Court, asking the justices to uphold low-dollar voucher programs in OH and Arizona.

Teachers' unions and leftwing civil liberties groups see the case as a serious threat to public education and religious neutrality in civic life.

"Make no mistake, if a majority of the justices side with the petitioners, the Supreme Court will be responsible for unleashing a virtual quake in this country that threatens both religious liberty and public education", AFT president Randi Weingarten said after oral arguments in January.

The Trump administration supported the plaintiffs before the High Court.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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