The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue is a significant victory for religious liberty.
Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court on June 30th, in which Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined.
It reaffirmed that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment “protects religious observers against unequal treatment” and against “laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status.”
The Court emphasized its 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran, stating that “disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit solely because of their religious character imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny.”
In this case, Montana had established a student-aid program to provide scholarships for private schools. But religious schools were excluded because of a provision within the Montana State Constitution prohibiting any public funds from assisting religious schools.
Today, the Court said Montana’s Constitution must give way to the Free Exercise of Religion protected by the U.S. Constitution.
In its analysis, the Court also mentioned the “checkered” history of the Blaine Amendment and state provisions, like the one at issue in this case, which were “born of bigotry” and “arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general.” Kentucky is among the states that has such a provision in its state constitution.
Notably, this case is about religious liberty and not funding for public schools. No state is required to provide a student-aid program for private schools, but if they do, they must avoid discriminating in the process.