Shortly after the tax-credit scholarship program was enacted, the Montana Department of Revenue prohibited families whose children attended religious schools from accessing the scholarship funds.
The Montana Supreme Court, citing a state constitutional prohibition on state assistance to religious schools, struck down the entire program.
The 5-4 ruling was penned by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by the court's four conservative justices. In a spring poll conducted ahead of today's decision with results published in The New York Times, almost two-thirds of all U.S. adults surveyed responded that "states should not be allowed to ban the use of subsidized scholarships for religious schools".
"No comparable "historic and substantial" tradition supports Montana's decision to disqualify religious schools from government aid".
In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described the ruling as "perverse".
Thirty-eight states have constitutional provisions like Montana's. About two-thirds of private schools in Montana have a religious affiliation.
"The Montana Supreme Court's decision does not place a burden on petitioners' religious exercise", she said. The court left unresolved the extent to which religious schools may use public funding for explicitly religious activities, such as worship services and religious-education courses. In Locke v. Davey (2004), the court decided that a student in the state of Washington could not use a state scholarship to pursue a devotional theology degree.
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Attorney General William Barr praised the ruling as "an important victory for religious liberty and religious equality in the United States".
President Donald Trump's administration supported the plaintiffs in the case.
Advocates for allowing state money to be used in private schooling said the court recognized in its decision that parents should not be penalized for sending their children to schools that are a better fit than the public schools.
"Make no mistake, if a majority of the justices side with the petitioners, the Supreme Court will be responsible for unleashing a virtual natural disaster in this country that threatens both religious liberty and public education", AFT president Randi Weingarten said after oral arguments in January. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second-largest teachers' union in the nation, filed an amicus brief urging the justices to uphold Montana's no religious aid law.
McDonald, of the Catholic educational association, also predicted that the ruling would bring swift changes in ME and Vermont, where parents have been able to get public funds for tuition at secular private schools, but not at faith-based schools.
Sister Dale McDonald, public policy director for the National Catholic Educational Association, said the ruling has the potential to stem nationwide enrollment declines at Roman Catholic schools that are forcing the closure of hundreds of institutions. In addition, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch each filed a separate concurring opinion. "There is this odd commonly held notion that states may not be allowed to give funds to religious schools and thus are required to discriminate against them, that's 180 degrees from the truth". In 2014, the justices allowed family-held, for-profit businesses with religious objections to get out from under a requirement to pay for contraceptives for women covered under their health insurance plans.
The decision followed the Supreme Court's 2017 ruling that churches and other religious entities can not be flatly denied public money even in states with constitutions explicitly banning such funding. Still another case would shield religious institutions from more employment discrimination claims.
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It acts as a recommendation to European Union members, meaning they could potentially set restrictions on those entering from the 14 nations.