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SCOTUS to Hear MT Case that Could Alter Public-School Funding

A U.S. Supreme Court decision could decide the fate of amendments barring public-school funding for religious schools in 37 states. (Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)
A U.S. Supreme Court decision could decide the fate of amendments barring public-school funding for religious schools in 37 states. (Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)
July 10, 2019

HELENA, Mont. - The U.S. Supreme Court next term will hear a case out of Montana about tax credits for private religious schools which could have implications nationwide.

Justices will hear Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue, a case that grapples with a $150 tax credit for donating to tuition scholarships. State lawmakers passed legislation allowing tuition support for private, religious schools, but the Montana Supreme Court struck that down in 2018.

Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said he fears that a high court ruling against Montana ultimately could threaten funding for public schools.

"If, in fact, the Supreme Court were to rule that indirect appropriations can be made to religious education in the state," he said, "then we set ourselves up for a competition of public dollars for religious education and for public education."

The Montana Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the program violated the state Constitution, noting that Montana draws a stricter line between church and state than does the U.S. Constitution. The organization Institute for Justice, representing families that would have benefited from this program, has said the ruling is biased against religious schools and violates federal freedom of religion and equal-protection clauses.

At the heart of the case, Feaver said, is something known as Blaine amendments, which have been passed in 37 states. They exclude public-school funding for religious schools.

"If the Supreme Court decided Montana's Constitution does not prohibit - cannot constitutionally prohibit - indirect and direct appropriations of public money to religious education, K-12," he said, "then that would impact every circumstance in a similar place across the nation."

The state Supreme Court's ruling against the tax-credit program shut it down completely. Dissenters in that case said the program never violated the Montana Constitution, because funds were donated directly to scholarship organizations and so were never made public.

More information about the case is online at scotusblog.com.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT