The past two weeks of Supreme Court rulings have not been encouraging. After the disastrous ruling in Bostock arbitrarily expanded civil rights protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity, the Court, in June Medical, all but handcuffed meaningful state efforts to restrict abortion.
Finally, good news. The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, held its ground on discrimination against religious education. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Court ruled that a state tax credit which “[discriminates] against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them” violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.
The case dates back to 2015 when the state of Montana created a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for individuals who donate to organizations that provide scholarships to private school students. After creating the program, the Montana Department of Revenue ruled that such a tax credit, if used to fund to religious private schools, would violate the state’s version of the “Blaine Amendment,” which prohibits state funding of religious education.
Kendra Espinoza, a single mom who works extra jobs in order to send her kids to a Christian school, challenged the Department of Revenue’s ruling in court. In late 2018, the Montana Supreme Court acknowledged that the Department’s ruling probably ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause. However, instead of overturning the ruling, it invalidated the entire program.
Thankfully, that didn’t work.
In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said that “when otherwise eligible recipients are disqualified from a public benefit ‘solely because of their religious character,’ we must apply strict scrutiny.” His statement was a reference to the Trinity Lutheran decision, a case that was successfully argued by the Alliance Defending Freedom in 2017.
“Strict scrutiny” means that the action can only be justified by a “compelling governmental interest.” Montana lacked a “compelling government interest.” Instead, the state argued that the law served “Montana’s interest in separating church and State ‘more fiercely’ than the Federal Constitution.”
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SOURCE: Christian Post, John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera