Montana School Choice Case Reaches Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a case that could make it easier for Americans to use public money to pay for religious education. Their decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue potentially has major implications for the school choice movement. Kendra Espinoza is the lead plaintiff in the case.

Espinoza is a mother who sends her children to a religious school in Montana because she wanted “a values-based education that would challenge them academically.” The state passed a tax-credit scholarship program in May 2015 that gave Montanans up to a $150 credit for donating to private scholarship organizations, which was intended to help students pay for their choice of private schools. Espinoza planned to use Montana’s tax-credit scholarship program, but the Department of Revenue made the rule preventing Christian schools from receiving these scholarships. The state’s supreme court later struck down the entire law.

Espinoza’s lawyers, a team from the libertarian Institute for Justice, argued before the Supreme Court that the program was voided simply because it afforded a religious option. The Montana Department of Revenue argued that providing tax credits for donations that later help pay tuition at private schools amounts to indirect funding of religious education by the state, in violation of state law. While government money being used to pay for religious schools doesn’t necessarily violate the First Amendment, appeals courts have ruled for both sides on whether excluding such schools from programs like Montana’s violates religious freedom.

Espinoza, along with her children, were in the courtroom during the session. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a school choice proponent, was in the courtroom as well. Espinoza said after the arguments, “I feel that we’re being excluded simply because we are people of religious background, or because our children want to go to a religious school. We’re here to stand up for our rights as people of faith to have the same opportunities that a secular schoolchild would have.”

Nearly 50 different “friend-of-the-court” briefs have been filed in this case for both sides. Several members of Congress, the Trump administration, and large groups of states have voiced their support for one side of the issue or the other. The libertarian Cato Institute and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have also weighed in. It is not yet known when the court plans to issue its decision.