Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue
The Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program allowed Montanans a tax credit for $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, an archaic anti-religious law that forbids tax credits going to schools owned or operated by a “church, sect, or denomination.” The Department’s decision to limit the use of scholarship funds to children that attend non-religious private schools, stood in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran decision. In September 2019, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the U.S. Supreme Court in support of low-income Montana parents, arguing that the discriminatory history of Blaine Amendments renders them unconstitutional, and that religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public benefit programs.
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A scholarship program for low-income Montana students
Children in Montana have been stripped of their right to participate in a modest scholarship program simply because some of them might attend religious schools.
In 2015 the state legislature passed the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows Montanans a tax credit of up to $150 of contributions to privately-run scholarship programs. However, the Montana Department of Revenue refused to implement the program, and in an ensuing lawsuit, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program, citing the state’s Blaine Amendment, an archaic anti-religious law that forbids any aid—direct or indirect—from going to schools owned or operated by a “church, sect, or denomination.” Because some scholarships might be used at religious schools, the Montana Supreme Court said no students could have them.
Treating religious school students as second-class citizens
By denying religious schools’ right to participate in a widely available public program, the Montana Supreme Court ignored 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. And the Montana court can’t excuse away the underlying religious bigotry by barring all students the program’s benefit.
Institute for Justice, along with Holland & Hart LLP, represents three low-income Montana mothers who would like to participate in the program by using the scholarships to help send their children to religious private schools.
Becket supports equal treatment of religious schools in public programs
In January 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Montana Supreme Court in support of the parents, arguing that religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public benefit programs and that courts can’t strike down entire benefit programs just to keep religious kids from benefitting from them. Oral argument was held on April 6, 2018, at the Montana Supreme Court, which in December 2018, ruled against the scholarship program, striking down the entire program because some funds would go to kids who chose to use them at religious schools.
On March 13, 2019, the Montana parents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Montana mothers’ case. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the discriminatory history of the Blaine Amendments renders them unconstitutional, and that religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public benefit programs. Becket’s brief also argued that relying on Blaine Amendments to shut down entire programs only extends the religious bigotry that motivated the enactment. Oral argument took place January 22, 2020. On June 30, 2020, the Supreme Court decided that children in Montana cannot be stripped of their right to participate in a scholarship program simply because they attend religious schools. The Court also recognized that Blaine Amendments are “born of bigotry.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Alito addressed more thoroughly the history of discrimination behind the Blaine Amendments, repeatedly referring to Becket’s brief.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Education: Religious schools should be able to participate in publicly available programs without discrimination, and religious school students should be able to participate in these programs on equal footing as students who attend non-religious schools.
- Dismantling discriminatory state laws: So long as anti-religious laws from the mid-19th century called Blaine Amendments remain in the books, people of all faiths can face discrimination, simply because they choose to attend a religious school.
- Reinforcing precedent set by Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley: In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state of Missouri can’t prevent a religious school from participating in a publicly available program that provides shredded-tire resurfacing to make playgrounds safer for kids on equal footing with other schools.