Montana, an education funding case, an attack on religious freedom

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case in January that clearly reveals the strategy of evangelical Christian activists to gain legal approval to fund primary and secondary religious education in America.

St. Wenceslas Church in Danvers, Montana was built in 1916 and is now used occasionally as a Catholic chapel. (Spend a day on tour, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The complainants of the Christian right in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue seek to overturn a Montana Supreme Court rule upholding the separation of church and state to prohibit the use of a state tax credit program to pay for religious education in schools .

The question is whether Montana must also fund religious schools when the benefit of publicly funded education goes to secular schools.

Why is this important?

“The case threatens the ‘No Aid’ state provision that prohibits public funds from being used for religious purposes, directly or indirectly, and this could hamper any state’s efforts to prevent religious institutions from being used for religious purposes. receive public money, “the nonprofit Secular Investigation Center (CFI) wrote in a recent newsletter on the case.

CFI, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and other secular organizations have formally joined forces to encourage the court “to reject this unconstitutional attempt to extract money from state coffers for the benefit of private sectarian schools. », That is to say mainly Christian schools in the United States

In a “stealth” attempt to fund religious education with taxes in Montana by circumventing the state constitution, the legislature passed a measure in 2015 allowing dollar-for-dollar tax credits to donors of educational programs. education that could then be used to fund students. private, including religious, schooling. The Revenue Department then issued a rule prohibiting religious schools from receiving such funds.

Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue is the attempt of the evangelical opposition to overturn the rule and reactivate previous legislation.

“The Montana state constitution is very clear on the issue of using taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools. You can not. You just can’t, ”said Nick Little, CFI vice president and general counsel. “This is why the Montana Supreme Court decision was simple to drop the program, and why it is so ridiculous that the United States Supreme Court is now being asked to revive what is a legislative corpse that ‘it is better to let it rest in peace. “

In one brief amicus curiae filed in support of the arguments of the Ministry of Finance, CFI writes:

“This case is not about discrimination; it is a support for religion imposed by the government. Importantly, religious freedom means that no taxpayer is obligated to financially support a religion or religious education that is not their own. “No Help” clauses, including those in the Montana Constitution, promote and protect the religious freedom of all citizens by enshrining this principle. The Montana neo-voucher program violated Montana’s “no help” clause and, therefore, this basic principle. The principle behind no-aid clauses – that taxpayers cannot be coerced into supporting religion or religious education – dates from the founding of America and has been uniformly accepted after years of experience. The American experiment of separating state and church has been successful. We miss the oppressive history of government-imposed tithe. As a result, some fail to understand that the No Aid principle actually protects religious freedom. “

Professor Frank S. Ravitch, president of Law & Religion at Michigan State University College of Law, had a different opinion in a Scotusblog article for a symposium on the pending case.

Ravitch argues that the Supreme Court should uphold the Montana high court rule invalidating the tax credit program because the program “would have benefited to a great extent – and perhaps would have had the ulterior purpose (read: not openly declared) to benefit – private religious schools. However, he also believes the Supreme Court will overturn the Montana rule, which he says would be a “mistake.”

He explains that in his earlier cases Locke v. Davey and Trinity Lutheran Church c. Comer, the court ruled on differing tax funding for “devotional” or religious-related college degrees (they ruled they should not be allowed) and public degrees. funding for a religious school playground, respectively (this should be allowed).

Ravitch said the issue, which the court alluded to earlier, is “a game in the joints” between state and federal concerns about government promotion of religion. He said opponents of the Montana rule would likely win the case not because “playing in the joints” is a clear concept, but because it “reflects a broader interest in balancing” state concerns and of the federal government in matters of free exercise.

In its Supreme Court brief in the case, CFI argues that people seeking tax-funded education opportunities in Montana are misguided.

In this case, Christians in Montana who claim to be discriminated against have drowned out this basic principle. But it remains true anyway. The constitutional prohibition of states to tax citizens for the benefit of religion, directly or indirectly, guarantees religious freedom for all, ”CFI wrote. “As Thomas Jefferson explained in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, ‘to compel a 5 man to provide contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he does not believe and abhor is a sin and a tyranny. … ‘James Madison called the law a’ true standard of religious freedom ‘. He did it because it was “the great barrier [against] usurpations on the rights of conscience.

At its core, however, this case is about evangelical Christian activists who deceptively attempt to insinuate religion into the universe of appropriate tax-funded civic options in America, while violating the Constitution.

But, as always, freedom of religion also means freedom. of religion. Introducing laws into state codes that allow evangelicals to levy taxes on non-Christians and non-believers and use them to educate the children of the faithful is the opposite of freedom of religion.

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