WASHINGTON — Leading U.S. bishops praised the Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday that religious schools should not be shut out from state benefits solely because of their faith-based status, calling it a “blow” against an “odious legacy of anti-Catholicism.”
In a 5-4 decision on June 30, the court said that the “no-aid” clause in the Montana state constitution, which barred public funding of religious institutions, discriminated against religious schools in violation of the U.S. constitution’s free exercise clause.
“This decision means that religious persons and organizations can, like everyone else, participate in government programs that are open to all,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami of Miami, chair of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee, and the USCCB Catholic education chair Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland said in a joint statement on Tuesday.
“A strong civil society needs the full participation of religious institutions,” they said, adding that the court’s conclusion was “promoting the common good.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, said that religious schools must be able to access public benefits if they are made available to secular private schools.
“A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” Roberts wrote. The constitution “condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them,” he said.
Administration officials applauded the court’s decision as a victory for school choice and opponents of anti-religious discrimination.
Education secretary Betsy DeVos called it “a turning point in the sad and static history of American education,” saying that “it will spark a new beginning of education that focuses first on students and their needs.” She called on states to “seize the extraordinary opportunity to expand all education options at all schools to every single student in America."
The White House press secretary’s office celebrated the ruling, stating that “[l]aws that condition public benefits, like need-based academic scholarships, on religious status demonstrate state-sanctioned hostility to religion, pressure people and institutions to censor their religious views, and stigmatize disfavored religions.”
Attorney General William Barr said that Espinoza “represents an important victory for religious liberty and religious equality in the United States.”
In 2015, Montana’s legislature approved a state scholarship program for private schools funded by donors who could claim tax credits. The state’s revenue department, however, said that scholarships in the program could only be used for non-religious schools because of the state constitution’s prohibition of public funding of “sectarian” causes or religious institutions.
The clause was initially enacted as a Blaine Amendment in Montana’s original 1889 constitution and was included in the 1972 constitution.
Some alleged that the clause was steeped in the anti-Catholic bigotry of the late 19th century, when Catholic schools were shut out of public funding that benefitted the largely-Protestant public school system of the time. However, its supporters have said that the 1972 constitution was upholding the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment, prohibiting the establishment of a state religion.
Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Barber on Tuesday said that the court’s decision “dealt a blow to the odious legacy of anti-Catholicism in America.”
“Blaine Amendments, which are in 37 states’ constitutions, were the product of nativism and bigotry,” they said of the no-aid clauses. “They were never meant to ensure government neutrality towards religion, but were expressions of hostility toward the Catholic Church.”
DeVos issued a warning to Montana and other states with similar no-aid clauses, that “your bigoted Blaine Amendments and other restrictions like them are unconstitutional, dead, and buried.”
“Too many students have been discriminated against based on their faith and have been forced to stay in schools that don’t match their values,” she said.
Becket, a religious freedom legal group which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, also said that “t was high time for the Blaine Amendments to bite the dust.”
“Relying on century-old state laws designed to target Catholics to exclude all people of faith was legally, constitutionally, and morally wrong,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket.
In 2017, the court dealt with a similar clause in Missouri’s constitution in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. There the court issued a narrow ruling in favor of a church-owned playground and its access to a public benefit program for resurfacing.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the legal group that represented the church in that decision, applauded Tuesday’s ruling.
“The Supreme Court was right to rule that states can’t oust parents and children from neutral benefit programs simply because they choose a religious private school,” said John Bursch, senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy at ADF.
While supporters of the no-aid clause might claim that there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state, that is a faulty understanding of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurrence.
“Thus, the modern view, which presumes that States must remain both completely separate from and virtually silent on matters of religion to comply with the Establishment Clause, is fundamentally incorrect,” Thomas wrote.