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Supreme Court: Montana Scholarship Program Can't Exclude Religious Schools

The building where the Supreme Court of the United States decides matters of great importance.
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

In another 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that Montana cannot prohibit scholarships funded by tax credits from going to religious schools. The majority found that the state constitution's "no aid" provision discriminated against religious families in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

SCOTUS Overrules Montana Supreme Court

In 2015, the Montana Legislature passed a bill creating a tax credit for those who donate to organizations that provide students with scholarships to private schools. Only one organization participated in the program since its inception: Big Sky Scholarships.

Big Sky distributed scholarship funds to thirteen schools, twelve of which were religiously affiliated. This wasn't much of a surprise, given that around 70% of the state's private schools are faith-based institutions.

The Montana Supreme Court invalidated the entire program in 2018, finding it ran contrary to the state constitution - which prohibits any state aid from going to religious education.

Now, the Supreme Court has overruled the state's high court.

Another Close Decision

Chief Justice John Roberts, who has become the swing vote to watch this term, delivered the majority opinion. Siding with the court's more conservative justices, the Chief Justice writes that the program did not violate the Establishment Clause because it was neutral. Religious institutions only benefit as a result of Montana parents independently choosing to send their children to those schools.

Relying on Trinity Lutheran, the majority concluded that disqualifying "otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit" based on religion was unconstitutional.

In his dissent, Justice Breyer warned that the majority risks "the kind of entanglement and conflict that the Religion Clauses are intended to prevent." Dissenting justices also argued for a free exercise rule that operates on a more case-by-case basis, but the Chief Justice was unconvinced:

"The protections of the Free Exercise Clause do not depend on a 'judgment-by-judgment analysis' regarding whether discrimination against religious adherents would somehow serve ill-defined interests."

Will the Court's upcoming decision on ministerial exemptions lower the wall between church and state even further? Keep an eye on our Supreme Court blog to find out.

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