Today, in a landmark victory for First Amendment and school choice champions, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) issued a ruling in one of the most anticipated cases of this term, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. At issue was whether Montana violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by prohibiting families who choose to enroll their children in private religious schools from participating in the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program while also allowing participation by students enrolling in private non-religious schools. In a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, SCOTUS ruled the provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend them.
The program at the center of the case is the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allowed a tax credit for contributions to privately run scholarship programs. Participating organizations distribute scholarships to families who wish to send their children to any private school. The Montana Department of Revenue refused to implement the program, a decision which was upheld by the Montana Supreme Court.
The lower courts relied on Montana’s Blaine Amendment, which forbids any aid from going to schools run by a church, sect, or denomination. Many argue the Blaine Amendments are state constitutional provisions rooted in 19th Century anti-Catholic bigotry. The purpose of these amendments, which still exist in 37 states, was to prevent Catholic schools from benefitting from any government funding. They are currently used by school choice opponents to exclude religious schools from public benefit programs. Upon adopting its 1974 constitution, the state of Louisiana did away with its own Blaine Amendment.
The plaintiffs in the Espinoza case are low-income Montana mothers who want to use the scholarship to send their kids to religious schools, because the state’s public schools were not meeting their children’s needs. One of Kendra Mendoza’s daughters was being bullied in public school, and the other was struggling academically in the system. Two other plaintiffs, Jeri Ellen Anderson and Jaime Schaefer, have academically gifted children who were simply not challenged by the curriculum in Montana’s public schools. While the families love the school they ultimately chose, Stillwater Christian School, they have struggled to pay tuition.
Today’s ruling is a victory for school choice advocates. Parents should be empowered to select a school that best meets their children’s needs. They should not be forced to surrender their kids to bullying or mediocrity. Espinoza could have major positive implications for school choice in Louisiana, which has seen its students continue to lag behind the rest of the country.
Providing Louisiana families with options to give their children a school that fits can offer a new world of possibilities to our state’s most vulnerable citizens. The Espinoza decision is an important victory for students and families, both across the nation and right here in the Pelican State.