Late last year, we covered the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to strike down that state’s scholarship tax credit program in the Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue case. That decision was definitely disappointing, but it was also a blessing in disguise. As we said then, the state court’s first-of-its-kind ruling set up a unique opportunity to bring the critical issue of religious discrimination to the United States Supreme Court.
This morning, SCOTUS seized upon that opportunity when the high court granted a petition to review the case.
The court’s decision to grant the petition signals that it is ready and willing to (finally) tackle the debate about discriminatory Blaine Amendments. These state constitutional clauses have long been used by those who seek to exclude faith-based organizations from various public benefit programs, including private school choice programs like the one in Montana.
How did we get here?
The high court nibbled at the edges of the Blaine issue in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer back in 2017, when it ruled that faith-based organizations cannot be excluded from public benefit programs simply because they are religious. But that ruling left critical questions unresolved about how this landmark principle would apply in private school scholarship programs.
The court had an opportunity to expand upon the Trinity Lutheran ruling in Douglas County School District v. Taxpayers for Public Education, but it instead chose to vacate the Colorado Supreme Court ruling and remand it back for further consideration.
Today, however, the court looks significantly different both in terms of composition and general philosophy. The new court seems ready and willing to consider the issue more fully. And the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Montana scholarship tax credit program provided them with a chance to do exactly that.
What does this mean for parental choice?
The Espinoza case could result in the most significant ruling on American education since Brown v. Board in 1954. The court is now positioned to settle an argument that has raged for the better part of two centuries.
A ruling that invalidates state constitutional Blaine Amendments as they have been applied to K-12 private school scholarship programs would throw open the doors of educational opportunity for tens or even hundreds of thousands of students across more than three dozen states. It would also end or significantly curtail the practice of weaponized political discrimination against faith-based organizations and reaffirm the religious protections in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
In short, it could be a game-changer.
What happens next?
We are still working to determine exact timelines, but the court could hear oral arguments in the case as early as this fall. A ruling would follow sometime after that.
As the largest K-12 scholarship provider in Montana, ACE has a unique perspective on this case. We voiced that perspective in an amicus brief supporting parents at the Montanan Supreme Court, as well in a separate brief requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court take up the case. We plan to file yet another supportive brief on the merits of the case as the U.S. Supreme Court considers arguments.
Stay tuned for more information as this important case moves closer to resolution.