In 2015, the Montana legislature passed a bill giving a $150 income tax credit to residents who funded private school scholarships. The problem is that most of those private schools were religious. So in a sense, if you chose to give money to a religious school, the government was rewarding you for it.
The money itself wasn’t a huge deal. It was the principle of the matter. Article X, Section 6 of Montana’s constitution, after all, forbids public money funding religious schools. That’s exactly what this was.
The argument against this line of thinking was that a tax credit wasn’t really “public funds” and the donations were ultimately helping students, not the religious schools themselves. Both were weak arguments given that tax credits are nothing more than money in your pocket rather than the state’s account — it’s no different than the government paying the religious school’s tuition. This bill was just a new way to funnel taxpayer money to religious schools. And even if the scholarships were for students, the schools receive an indirect benefit from being able to offer those scholarships.
Thankfully, the Montana Supreme Court saw through those pathetic arguments and voted 5-2 to strike down the 2015 law.
“The (tax credit) permits the Legislature to subsidize tuition payments at religiously-affiliated private schools,” Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote for the majority. “That type of government subsidy in aid of sectarian schools is precisely what the (constitutional) delegates intended (the constitution) to prohibit.”
“Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education — that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”
“Tuition-tax credit programs like Montana’s are a transparent attempt to circumvent state constitutions that prohibit public funding of religious education,” added Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United. “The Montana Supreme Court correctly saw through this money-laundering scheme. Other state courts should follow suit.”
The supporters of the “money-laundering scheme” said this tax credit was merely an extension of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran case in which they said religious institutions could be eligible for taxpayer-funded grants offered by the state as long as they were for a secular purpose. Were these scholarships the same sort of thing? Americans United said they weren’t because “religious schools in Montana require students to take religious classes that indoctrinate the students in the schools’ faiths.”
Not that the plaintiffs were buying that.
In a statement, one of the plaintiffs, Kendra Espinoza said the ruling essentially means her daughters can’t get a private-school scholarship.
“The court’s ruling discriminates against religious families and every Montana child who is counting on these scholarships,” she said.
Bullshit. Of course her kids can get a scholarship. Religious schools can offer them and donors can fund them. They just can’t get a reward from the government for doing so — that’s all this case was about.
The conservative Institute for Justice, which defended the tax credit, said they would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to everyone for the link)