Supreme Court ruling on religious school tuition

Exclusion of religious schools in a tax-based scholarship program is discriminatory, according to the decision, which is a disappointment to many public school supporters.
By: | July 6, 2020
Photo by Bill Oxford on UnsplashPhoto by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 30 that money from a tax credit scholarship program can be used to pay tuition at religious schools. The decision disappoints public school supporters but pleases those who favor public funding options for private school education.

The 5-4 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, 120 LRP 19694 (U.S. 06/30/20), determined that a Montana provision that prohibited families from using tax credit scholarships at any school controlled by a “church, sect, or denomination” discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attended or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Free Exercise Clause “protects religious observers against unequal treatment” and against “laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status,” according to the Supreme Court’s opinion.

The decision, which some say could increase opportunities for public funding for private schools, reverses the Montana Supreme Court ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, 119 LRP 44339 (Mont. 12/12/18), and remands the case for further proceedings.

In writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts opined, “A school, concerned about government involvement with its religious activities, might reasonably decide for itself not to participate in a government program. But we doubt that the school’s liberty is enhanced by eliminating any option to participate in the first place.”

Roberts also wrote, “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 was joined by the High Court’s four other conservative justices in the decision.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of four liberal justices writing dissenting opinions, called the ruling “perverse.” She wrote that because the state scholarship program no longer exists, the Supreme Court should have never granted certiorari. Additionally, the defense of the Free Exercise Clause is misplaced, she wrote, because the U.S. Constitution does not require Montana to create or maintain a tuition tax subsidy.

“Without any need or power to do so, the Court appears to require a State to reinstate a tax-credit program that the Constitution did not demand in the first place,” Sotomayor wrote.

‘Historic victory’

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a proponent of educational choice, called the High Court’s decision a “historic victory for America’s students.”

“Each and every student needs the freedom to find their education fit, and today the Highest Court in the Land has protected that right by ensuring that families can use taxpayer funds to choose schools that match their values and educational goals, including faith-based schools,” DeVos said in a statement.

Also in a statement, President Trump said that his administration believes school choice is a civil rights issue, and that “no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school.”

The decision, however, disappointed several education-related organizations and disability advocacy groups, some of which had filed amicus briefs to the Court last year, saying school vouchers and tax credit programs allow public funds to be used at private schools that do not have to implement the IDEA and its key provisions, including access to the general curriculum, instructional supports and accommodations.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the decision “will hurt both the 90 percent of students who attend neighborhood public schools by siphoning off needed funds and, in the long term, those who attend religious schools by curtailing their freedom with the accountability that comes with tax dollars.”

Kara Arundel covers special education for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication. Documents mentioned above are available to subscribers.