WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools.
The decision, a victory for conservatives, was the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that the free exercise of religion bars the government from treating religious groups differently from secular ones. It opens the door to more public funding of religious education.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 ruling. The court’s four more liberal members dissented.
“A state need not subsidize private education,” Roberts wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
The case involved a Montana program enacted in 2015 “to provide parental and student choice in education.” The program was financed by private contributions eligible for tax credits, and it provided scholarships to students in private schools.
Soon after the program started, a state agency said students attending religious schools were not eligible in light of a provision of the state’s constitution that bars 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.”
Three mothers with children at Stillwater Christian School, in Kalispell, Montana, sued, saying that provision of the state constitution violated the protections of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled against them, shutting down the entire program for all schools, religious or not.
The decision built on earlier rulings on the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. In 2017, for instance, in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the Supreme Court ruled Missouri had violated the First Amendment by barring religious institutions from a state program to make playgrounds safer, even though the state’s constitution called for strict separation of church and state.
A 2004 Supreme Court decision, Locke v. Davey, allowed Washington state to offer college scholarships to all students except those pursuing degrees in devotional theology.
The program at issue in the Montana case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, No. 18-1195, involved elements of religious instruction, but it did not concern a targeted exclusion of state support for vocational religious instruction.