Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue
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Children in Montana have been stripped of their right to participate in a modest scholarship program simply because they attend religious schools.
In 2015 the state legislature passed the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows Montanans to deduct up to $150 of their contributions to a privately-run scholarship program. However, the Montana Department of Revenue refused to implement the program citing the state’s Blaine Amendment, archaic anti-religious law that forbids tax credits going to schools owned or operated by a “church, religious sect, or denomination.”
The Department then created its own rule that limits the use of scholarship funds to children that attend non-religious private schools, leaving religious schools out in the cold. By denying religious schools the ability to participate in a widely available public program, the Montana Department of Revenue stands in defiance of the Supreme Court’s June 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that ruled religious groups cannot be barred from participation in widely available public programs simply because they are religious.
Institute for Justice, as well as Holland & Hart LLP, represent three low-income Montana mothers who would like to use the program to help send their children to religious private schools. In January of 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the parents, arguing that religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public benefit programs.
Oral argument was held on April 6, 2018 at the Montana Supreme Court and a decision should be announced in the coming months.