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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Public Funding for Private Schools Must Not Exclude Religious Schools

U.S. Supreme Court Rules
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled June 30 on a case about public funding for religious education, sparking praise from religious freedom advocates and alarm from secular groups. 

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the high court ruled 5-4 that states must give religious schools the same access to public funding that other private schools receive, preserving a Montana scholarship program that had largely benefited students at religious institutions. 

The re-election campaign of President Donald Trump, who counts religious conservatives as a core part of his base, lauded the decision as "a victory for educational freedom." 

Sister Dale McDonald, public policy director for the National Catholic Educational Association, said the ruling has the potential to stem nationwide enrollment declines at Roman Catholic schools that are forcing the closure of hundreds of institutions.

"This is a chance to get public schools and religious schools on equal footing," McDonald said, adding that the extent of change would depend on how many state legislatures opt to expand tuition assistance. 

Others criticized the decision as another in a series of setbacks for a principle with long roots in the U.S. legal system. 

It is "the latest in a disturbing line of Supreme Court cases attacking the very foundations of the separation of church and state," said Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's freedom of religion program. 

The June 30 ruling focused on a program that offered indirect tuition assistance through tax credits rather than direct state aid to religious schools. The court left unresolved the extent to which religious schools may use public funding for explicitly religious activities, such as worship services and religious-education courses. 

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who co-authored a brief supporting the plaintiffs on behalf of multiple religious groups, described the decision as "incremental" and "building cautiously" on a 2017 case that ruled a Missouri church could use a state grant to resurface its playground. 

"But incremental moves have been accumulating since 1986, and what would pretty clearly have been unconstitutional in the '70s and early '80s is now, sometimes, constitutionally required," Laycock wrote in an email. 

At least two faith-based organizations joined secular counterparts in opposing the ruling on principles of church-state separation, saying public money for religious education forces people to fund faiths to which they do not subscribe.

Another attorney who co-authored a brief supporting the plaintiffs, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty vice president and senior counsel Eric Baxter, predicted the ruling will not result in significant new funds flowing to religious schools.

"Legislatures are not compelled to provide this funding," Baxter said, pointing to language in Chief Justice John Roberts' majority opinion saying most states with provisions barring aid to religious schools still let them participate in public scholarship programs.

"If they do provide this funding to the private sphere," Baxter said of states, "then they just have to treat everybody equally."

ⓒ The Associated Press

The Banner has a subscription to AP Religion and Faith and occasionally re-publishes articles of wide Christian interest, according to the license. This story was edited for length. Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The original story can be found here.

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