Sunday, 12 July, 2020

Divided Supreme Court sides with school-choice advocates

A Jewish man and a child stand on a street in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn A Jewish man and a child stand on a street in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn
Cecil Davis | 01 July, 2020, 05:53

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 decision is a victory for religious conservatives and school choice groups, who were deeply invested in a case they viewed as a potential landmark.

The Montana legislature enacted a school choice program in 2015 that provided a tax credit of up to $150 for donations to nonprofit scholarship funds.

The ruling "recognizes a fundamental truth: kids deserve equal access to educational benefits, regardless of which school they decide to attend", he said in a statement. In the past, school choice advocates maintained a modest posture in the High Court, asking the justices to uphold low-dollar voucher programs in OH and Arizona. The court declared that, unmodified by the Department of Revenue rule, the program ran afoul of the state's constitution, which contains a "no aid" provision preventing tax dollars from flowing to religious schools.

Roberts echoed that sentiment in the majority opinion, tying the "no aid" provision in the Montana constitution to the era of the Blaine Amendment.

At the end of the day, noted the RAC, "rather than implementing private-school voucher programs, the government should invest in public schools to make them safer, stronger and more equitable".

"A State need not subsidize private education", Roberts writes for the court. The state's revenue department made a rule banning those tax-credit scholarships from going to religious schools before the state's supreme court later struck down the entire program.

The US Supreme Court
The US Supreme Court

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Montana high court's decision violated the First Amendment clause that guarantees the free exercise of religion.

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.

"Today's SCOTUS ruling is a historic win for families who want SCHOOL CHOICE NOW!" That violates the free exercise clause, he said. "The Montana Constitution discriminates based on religious status just like the Missouri policy in Trinity Lutheran, which excluded organizations 'owned or controlled by a church, sect, or other religious entity'". "It would offend my religious freedom to fund a school that requires belief that Jesus Christ is necessary for my salvation". "States are prohibited from discriminating against religious schools".

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent that the high-court ruling "is perverse". Several attempts to provide tax credits for scholarship programs have failed amidst constitutional questions.

The 5-4 decision is a win for Jewish and other religious schools.

The Supreme Court heard the case-USAID v. Alliance for Open Society International Inc.-in May via teleconference due to COVID-19 shutdowns. Breyer said the ruling could lead to legal fights over whether states have to directly fund religious schools as well as secular public schools.

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