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Supreme Court victory for religious schools, educational choice

June 30, 2020

In a landmark victory for educational freedom, the US Supreme Court has disallowed a state scholarship program in Montana that excluded support for religious schools.

In a 5-4 decision announced on June 30 in the case of Espinoza v. Montana, the Court found that a Montana state court erred by striking down a scholarship program that excluded private and religious schools. “A state need not subsidize private education,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

The Montana scholarship program provided funding for families with school-age children. But the state had refused support for Kendra Espinoza, who had enrolled her daughters in a Christian school. Evidently seeking to avoid a legal challenge, the Montana legislature made all private schools, religious or not, ineligible for the scholarship program. The state’s highest court then struck down the entire scholarship program.

In the Espinoza ruling, the Court upheld the plaintiffs’ argument that the Montana policy was a form of illegal discrimination on the basis of religion. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the First Amendment prohibition against establishment of religion “is not offended when religious observers and organizations benefit from neutral government programs.”

The Espinoza decision calls into question the “Blaine Amendments,” passed in 38 American states in the late 19th century, which prohibit any form of state aid to parochial schools. The Blaine Amendments—which were approved during an era marked by anti-Catholic bigotry—are now targets for further legal challenges.

The Court’s ruling is certain to encourage policy-makers to devise programs that will allow public support for private schools, parochial schools, and home schools.


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