SCOTUS lowers wall between church and state with school ruling

The Supreme Court of the United States. Credit Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court of the United States. Credit Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 split along ideological lines, ruled Tuesday that states can not bar religious organizations from accessing government money available to others, a decision that Justice Sonya Sotomayor described as "perverse" but was cheered by conservatives and school choice advocates such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The brief said the discrimination called for in the state court's ruling "violates the fundamental principles of the [First Amendment's religion clauses]: Government neutrality and private choice in matters of religion".

Writing for the conservative majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the ban "discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation" of the U.S. Constitution's free exercise of religion clause. "Extremist special interests are manipulating our tax code to rob Montana children of quality education while padding the pockets of those who run exclusive, discriminatory private schools", union president Amanda Curtis said.

"A State need not subsidize private education", he said, "but once a State decides to do so, it can not disqualify some private schools exclusively because they are religious".

In 2016, Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, pushed a constitutional amendment to Idaho's Blaine Amendment. They generally forbid the colonial American practice of using local tax dollars for explicitly Christian schooling. State constitutions have similar provisions.

The amendments' goal was to keep Catholics from accessing the same community funding for raising their children in their beliefs that Protestants enjoyed.

"The Free Exercise Clause "protects religious observers against unequal treatment" and against 'laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status, ' Roberts wrote, citing a previous court decision on religious liberty". "At a time when public schools nationwide already are grappling with protecting and providing for students despite a pandemic and mounting budget shortfalls, the court has made things even worse opening the door for further attacks on state decisions not to fund religious schools", said NEA president Lily Eskelsen García.

The case is Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.

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"Government funding to religious schools requires taxpayers to support religious institutions and beliefs that may violate their own, something the First Amendment was meant to avoid", Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement.

The Trinity Lutheran decision came to "the "unremarkable" conclusion that disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit "solely due to their religious character" imposes 'a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny, '" Roberts wrote.

During oral arguments five months ago, Justices Alito and Kavanaugh spoke of the anti-religious, and particularly anti-Roman Catholic, bias of the so-called Blaine Amendment, a failed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have prohibited direct government aid to educational institutions with religious affiliations. For three moms with children at the Stillwater Christian School, the scholarship funds were crucial in enabling them to afford the school's tuition. "All of America's children deserve a first-rate education".

It would also be key in reversing the nation's loss of its historic saturation in Christianity, since common sense and research indicate that "the now best-supported argument for why religion has declined around the world" is government-run education, as researcher Lyman Stone wrote in a recent review of such research.

"Members of the faith should fund those religious schools, not the taxpayers", said Laser, who is Jewish.

Religious freedom advocates widely applauded the court's ruling. Virtue is the core underpinning to republican government. This represents an enormous choice gap in American education.

The Montana Association of Rabbis argued that the scholarship program violated the Free Exercise clause by using taxpayer money to pay for religious education.

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