The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the rights of parents to choose their children’s school, regardless of religious affiliation, through a school choice program. In Espinoza V. Montana Department of Revenue, the Court has ruled that state courts may not strike down a school choice program merely because it allows families to choose religious schools. The Court said that excluding religious options in a school choice program violates the religious freedom protection of the First Amendment. In the words of the ruling, “Drawing on ‘enduring American tradition,’ we have long recognized the rights of parents to direct ‘the religious upbringing’ of their children . . . . Many parents exercise that right by sending their children to religious schools, a choice protected by the Constitution.”
In 2015, the Montana Legislature passed a school choice program in which a $150 tax credit would be given to taxpayers who donated to nonprofit scholarship organizations. The organizations would then issue scholarships to low-income students and students with disabilities so they could attend a school of their choice. However, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the school choice program entirely because it allowed scholarship recipients to choose a religious school. This decision was based on the view that supporting religious schools through the school choice program was a violation of Montana’s Blaine Amendment, which is a provision introduced in the 1800’s.
Originally, Blaine Amendments (named for Congressman James G. Blaine) were adopted by many states as a way to prohibit Catholic schools from receiving public funds. At the time, many Catholic immigrants had come to the country. Catholic leaders wanted to open Catholic schools so their students would have an educational option that fit the Catholic community’s needs. However, there was strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the U.S. in the mid-1800s.
Thus, seeking to specifically discriminate against Catholics, Blaine introduced an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would prohibit states from providing any tax money to any “religious sect,” which at the time specifically meant Catholic. In fact, most of the public schools at the time would be considered religious schools by today’s standards. That was okay with Blaine, because they were Protestant, not Catholic.
Although Blaine’s amendment failed in Congress, by just a few votes in the Senate, similar amendments were adopted by individual states. Today, many states have these Blaine Amendments that are based on religious discrimination and bigotry.
The Court ruling of June 30, 2020 is a landmark victory in the fight for School Choice and against religious discrimination. The antiquated, discriminatory Blaine Amendments have been weakened and it’s about time! In the words of Justice Clarence Thomas, “This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now.” In it’s ruling, the Court said, “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”