Montana had a program whereby individuals received a tax credit for donations to organizations providing scholarships for private schools. But the state specifically excluded religious schools from the program. Kendra Espinoza, a single mother of two daughters enrolled in a Christian school in Kalispell, Montana, argued that excluding religious schools violated the Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, agreed.
Is the Espinoza v Montana Department of Revenue decision broad enough to open the doors to public funding of private religious schools? National Public Radio, in an article back in January, called Espinoza “… a case with potentially profound implications, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority seemed ready to invalidate a provision of the Montana state constitution that bars aid to religious schools. A decision like that would work a sea change in constitutional law, significantly removing the longstanding high wall of separation between church and state.”
CNN, in an article of 30 June, said “Tuesday’s opinion is a huge win for supporters of school choice programs, a hallmark of the Trump administration, and it will also encourage other states to push for similar programs.”
Justice Roberts’ written opinion said that “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.”
The underpinnings of denying public money to religious schools resides in the Blaine Amendment, a 19th Century proposal that would deny public funding to schools with religious affiliation. The amendment failed, but some 38 states borrowed the prohibition for their own constitutions to deny funding for parochial schools in areas with large Catholic immigrant populations. As such, the Blaine Amendment has been described as an anti-immigrant measure by a largely Protestant citizenry.
Five of the current nine Supreme Court justices graduated from Catholic High Schools, but such schools are not exclusively for the elite, and help many inner-city children achieve academic success with a higher graduation rate and higher SAT scores than public schools. But Parochial schools are experiencing grave financial troubles, with some 1,191 Catholic schools closed or consolidated since 2010, and the rate has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Will the Espinoza decision lead to an eventual relaxation of the “separation of church and state,” and the unraveling of public school funding as some fear, or will it infuse new life and vitality into the kind of schools parents choose for their children? More cases will undoubtedly come before the Supreme Court which could answer that question.