In one of the most important church-state decisions of the year, the Supreme Court ruled along ideological lines Tuesday that a state-run school-scholarship program must be available to religious as well as secular institutions. The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, concerned a Montana school-choice program that violated the “no aid” provision of the Montana state constitution, which prohibits state funds to be used to support religious schools.
Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that provision, as applied to the scholarship program, violates the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause, because it was “putting the school to a choice between being religious or receiving government benefits” and “at the same time, the provision puts families to a choice between sending their children to a religious school or receiving such benefits.” Both of those, Roberts wrote, violate the Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Concurring in the judgment, Justice Samuel Alito wrote a lengthy historical treatise on the history of the Montana rule, which has its roots in anti-Catholic bigotry.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that no one was being “put to a choice” because the entire scholarship program had been struck down by the Montana Supreme Court. Thus, Ginsburg wrote, for the plaintiffs, “neither giving up their faith, nor declining to send their children to sectarian schools, would affect their entitlement to scholarship funding,” adding “there simply are no scholarship funds to be had.”
As a result of the decision, the Montana scholarship program has been restored, and its funds must be available to students attending religious and well as secular private schools.