Supreme Court ruling allowing tax-aided religious tuition is chilling

Supreme Court ruling allowing tax-aided religious tuition is chilling July 2, 2020

This is the skinny edge of an enormously ominous wedge that the Christian Right has now succeeded in forcing into U.S. publicly funded education.

This worrisome assault on church-state separation comes thanks to the increasingly right-leaning, faith-friendly Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Justices on June 28 very narrowly ruled (5-4) that the Montana Supreme Court was wrong to strike down a legislature-authorized program to provide tax-incentivized tuition assistance in the form of so-called “scholarships” for the state’s private-school students.

supreme court church-state montana school taxes
U.S. flag flies adjacent to a Christian church. (Surpasspro, Adobe Stock)

Considering that the lion’s share of such “scholarships” go to students attending religious, largely Christian, schools, this law now effectively allow tax incentives for religious schools in Montana, in that “scholarship” donations by citizens to the program were tax deductible.

The state high court had earlier ruled that the tax incentives linked to religious education “ran afoul of a state constitution provision forbidding public funds from going to religious institutions,” the Washington Post reported.

Montana’s private-school statues are crystal clear in their intent to keep tax funds away from parochial education. The relevant state law is below:

Public Aid for Private Education

Constitutional Provisions: The Montana Constitution prohibits public aid to schools  controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination. This provision does not apply to federal sources of income for nonpublic education. Mont. Const., Art. X, §6.

The Montana Constitution prohibits appropriations for educational purposes to private associations or corporations not under control of the state. Mont. Const., Art.V, §11.

The Montana Supreme Court has interpreted the state constitution to prohibit school boards from employing teachers to teach secular subjects in parochial schools. State ex rel. Chambers v. School District, 472 P.2d 1013 (1970).

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision — the most consistently liberal and conservative justices cleaved 4-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts casting the deciding vote aligned with conservatives — said providing tax incentives to non-sectarian private schools but not religious ones was a violation of religious freedom and equal treatment enshrined in the Constitution.

“A state need not subsidize private education,” Roberts wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

I see a quick fix: If the majority of Montana’s legislators agree with the current laws regarding funding of private, including religious, education, they could simply outlaw any tax subsidies for all private schools. If parents want a different education than public schools provide, they can completely pay for it themselves — or find donors who will foot the cost entirely, without tax assistance.

Nonetheless, the new SCOTUS decision, the Post article notes, was:

“… a big win for school choice advocates such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who favor government support of students seeking faith-based education. Public school advocates said such programs take away resources that should be used to improve the systems.”

Unsurprisingly, the evangelical-coddling Trump administration supported the Christian Right challenge to Montana law affecting religious schools. The White House said in a statement that the new SCOTUS ruling:

“… removes one of the biggest obstacles to better educational opportunities for all children. Laws that condition public benefits, like need-based academic scholarships, on religious status demonstrate state-sanctioned hostility to religion, pressure people and institutions to censor their religious views, and stigmatize disfavored religions. The Trump Administration believes that school choice is a civil rights issue, and that no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school.”

The Post article asserts that while liberal justices “had eliminated any discrimination problems by eliminating the [scholarship] program,” they lamented that their conservative colleagues “were to anxious to fix a problem that no longer existed.”

Still, with the SCOTUS decision, Montanans can now send their kids’ to religious schools with tax-deductible funding.

I doubt Thomas Jefferson, for one, would find that remotely appropriate.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who wrote for the minority opinion, warned that the majority decision risks “government entanglement in religion” if taxes are allowed to finance religious instruction in any way, the Post wrote.

“If, for 250 years, we have drawn a line at forcing taxpayers to pay the salaries of those who teach their faith from the pulpit, I do not see how we can today require Montana to adopt a different view respecting those who teach it in the classroom,” Breyer wrote.

The scholarship program, before being discontinued by the legislature, provided dollar-for-dollar tax credits up to $150 to anyone donating private-school tuition money to low-income parents.

Montana is among 38 states that disallow government funding for religious organizations that is available to others. The state’s legal team told the U.S. Supreme Court that it believed its law prohibiting direct or indirect assistance to religious organizations was constitutionally valid.

In a statement, the nonprofit watchdog Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) said in its headline that the recent SCOTUS ruling “corrupts” the “foundational principle” of strictly keeping church and state separate.

“This court has overturned decades of precedent in an effort  to privilege certain religious beliefs and have them dominate our civic life,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said in the statement. “Forcing taxpayers to pay for private religious education – as Montana’s tax-credit voucher program does – is a fundamental violation of their religious freedom. Because religious schools are the epicenter of religious influence on the next generation, it’s imperative that the members of the faith support those schools, not the taxpayers at large.”

This headline in an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) press release decrying the SCOTUS decision succinctly summarizes the issue for secularists: “Taxpayers Shouldn’t Have to Fund Religious Education: How Today’s Supreme Court Decision Further Erodes the Separation of Church and State.”

Exactly right.

“The court’s opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue marks an alarming sea change in the law and calls into question the continued validity of similar provisions in dozens of other state constitutions, which aim to prohibit government funding for religious institutions,” wrote senior staff attorney Heather L. Weaver in the AU statement.

But the SCOTUS ruling now is what it is, and we are left to worry about how it might grievously increase government entanglement with religion in a broad majority of states — against their wishes. This is exactly what the Founding Fathers didn’t have in mind for their secular republic.

Please sign up (top right) to receive new Godzooks! posts via email, Facebook or Twitter

“Erudite yet readable … very illuminating”

— Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” in praise of “Holy Smoke”

Buy either book on Amazon, here (paperback or ebook editions)

"“Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?”To me, this kind of ..."

The one theology question nagging all ..."
"True. The truth requires objective focus ... and evidence. If you do that, religion seems ..."

The one theology question nagging all ..."
"What if you're only 99% right and god demands 100%? You can't win."

The one theology question nagging all ..."
"Look at the trees! Just not too closely. The last guy who tried that is ..."

The one theology question nagging all ..."

Browse Our Archives