Espinoza ruling threatens public education and religious liberty

In a case with significant implications for the use of taxpayer dollars to support religious schools, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Montana school voucher program must extend benefits to students who attend church-affiliated institutions.

Supreme Court building

The June 30 decision, by a sharply divided court, overturns the holding of the Montana state Supreme Court, which had found that using public funds to pay for religiously affiliated schooling violated the state’s constitutional requirement that public resources should support only public education programs.

“This ruling is a seismic shock that threatens both public education and religious liberty,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “It is a radical departure from our Constitution, American history and our values.”

The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, involved a program enacted in 2015 “to provide parental and student choice in education.” Private contributions were offset, dollar for dollar, by state tax credits, with the money raised going to provide voucher-like scholarships to students in private schools.

At issue was whether a provision of the state’s constitution conflicts with the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Montana’s Supreme Court had halted implementation of the voucher program, saying it was barred by the state constitution’s language prohibiting the use of government money for “any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect or denomination.”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision reversing the Montana ruling. He was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

In her separate dissenting opinion, Sotomayor called the majority’s ruling “perverse”—a characterization with which Weingarten agrees.

“Never in more than two centuries of American history has the free exercise clause of the First Amendment been wielded as a weapon to defund and dismantle public education,” Weingarten says. “It will hurt both the 90 percent of students who attend neighborhood public schools, by siphoning off needed funds, and, in the long term, those who attend religious schools, by curtailing their freedom with the accountability that comes with tax dollars.”

In addition to Montana, 37 other states have language in their constitutions barring public funding for religious schools. The provisions have generally been interpreted to mandate that public money must support public—not private, religiously affiliated—schools.

“The court’s narrow conservative majority joined with Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and other wealthy donors and special interests to attack public education and turn the First Amendment on its head,” Weingarten said. “What’s even more disturbing is that some justices wanted to go even further.

“While the court didn’t invalidate the 38 state constitutional provisions that preclude public money from going to religious schools, it came very close,” she added. “The financial backers of this case will now use it to open the floodgates to litigation across the country.”

Several religious organizations joined with public education advocates to oppose the Montana voucher program because they viewed it as a violation of the separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment and feared greater entanglement of government and religion.

That is just what the Supreme Court’s ruling will lead to, Weingarten says.

“I hope the court and the plaintiffs understand that by enabling this encroachment on religious liberty, they are also opening up religion to state control and state interference,” she says. “With public funding comes public accountability. Upending the carefully constructed balance of free exercise and separation of church and state not only undermines public education, it is a grave threat to religious institutions and organizations.”

The importance of public schools has become even clearer to Americans during this time of national crisis, Weingarten points out. “We should be prioritizing additional resources for public education and other vital social programs—not diverting public funding to private purposes.”

But parents, teachers and their unions are not about to give up, Weingarten says, pledging that the fight will continue “in court, in Congress, in state legislatures … [and] at the ballot box.”

Regarding attacks on public education by Trump and DeVos, Weingarten says, “we will see them in November.”

[Tom Lansworth and AFT news release/photo by Pamela Wolfe]