SCOTUS | Bar imposed on families from using State Scholarships for religious schools is violative of Free Exercise Clause of Federal Constitution 

Supreme Court of The United States

Supreme Court of the United States: While determining that whether Rule 1 promulgated by the Montana Revenue Department barring the families from using State scholarships, for religious schools is violative of the Federal Constitution; the 9 Judge Bench of the Court, with a ratio of 5:4 held that, the application of the no-aid provision discriminates against religious schools and families; therefore it violates the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution. The majority comprised of John Roberts, C.J., Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch, JJ.

The dispute revolved around a program established by the Montana Legislature which granted tax credits to those who donated to organizations that award scholarships for private school tuition. In order to reconcile the legislative program with, Article X 6(1) of the Montana Constitution, that bars government aid to any school “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination”, the Montana Revenue Department issued the impugned Rule 1. Due to the promulgation of the impugned Rule, several families were blocked from using scholarship funds for their children’s tuition at Stillwater Christian School. Hence they sued the Department, alleging that the Rule discriminated on the basis of their religious views and the religious nature of the school they had chosen. The Department contended that instant issue is similar to Locke v. Davey, 540 U. S. (2004) wherein the plaintiff denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to use the funds to prepare for the ministry, which was essentially a religious endeavour. The Department further contended that the no-aid provision promotes religious freedom.   

  Rejecting the contentions raised by the Department, the majority referred to the decision rendered in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Comer, 582 U. S. (2017) where it was held that disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit “solely because of their religious character” imposes “a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny”. The majority further observed that the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution protects religious observers against unequal treatment” and against “laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status. Noting that the application of Montana’s no-aid provision excludes religious schools from public benefits solely because of religious status, therefore a strict scrutiny is necessary. It was also observed that Montana’s no-aid provision did not zero in on any essential religious course of instruction but rather barred aid to a religious school simply because it is a religious school. It was stated that, “The Department’s argument that the no-aid provision promotes religious freedom is unavailing because an infringement of First Amendment rights cannot be justified by a State’s alternative view that the infringement advances religious liberty. The Department’s argument is especially unconvincing because the infringement here broadly burdens not only religious schools but also the families whose children attend them. The Department suggests that the no-aid provision safeguards public education by ensuring that government support is not diverted to private schools, but that interest does not justify a no-aid provision that requires only religious private schools to bear its weight”.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, JJ., delivered the dissenting opinion. As per the minority opinion, it was stated that the majority did not recognise the ‘play-in-the-joints’ doctrine which means that the Free Exercise Clause forbids a State to draw any distinction between secular and religious uses of government aid to private schools that is not required by the Establishment Clause; thus the majority’s approach and its conclusion in this case is a risky entanglement and conflict that the Religion Clauses intended to prevent in the first place. [Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, 591 US (2020), decided on 30-06-2020]      

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