U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of religious schools

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week in favor of tuition tax credits to aid private, religious K-12 schools.

The Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue case is somewhat complex but does not appear to require a state to allow public funding of private religious schools if it does not already do so. The ruling also appears to protect Kansas’ existing tuition tax credit scholarship program for low income students, which primarily benefits private religious schools, and may prompt attempts to broaden the plan.

KASB’s legislative policy adopted by its Delegate Assembly opposes the use of tuition tax credits, vouchers, or other “choice” programs to aid private elementary or secondary schools which are not subject to the same legal requirements as public-school districts. Private schools are permitted to turn away students who do comply with religious or other strictures; public schools are required to educate all students who present themselves at the schoolhouse door.

Tuition tax credit programs permit a donor to contribute to a “scholarship granting organization” which in turn may grant a requesting student a scholarship which functions as a voucher for the student to attend a private school. The donor receives a credit toward his or her tax bill.

Tuition tax credits, vouchers and “school choice” programs have been part of a nationwide debate over the concept of “separation of church and state” that generally prohibits government support of religious institutions while also protecting those institutions from governmental interference.

Montana, Kansas and 36 other states have provisions in their state constitutions prohibiting religious organizations from controlling public funds. In 2018, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the state’s tuition tax-credit program for private schools, holding that it violated the state constitution’s ban on aid for churches and religious schools. Most of the private schools in Montana are religiously affiliated. Parents who wanted to use the scholarships to keep their children at the Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana sued, and that is the case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

The five-justice majority led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. said on Monday the Montana constitution’s prohibition on religious schools benefitting from tuition tax credits violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protection of religious freedom.

“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.”

Kansas’ Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program provides scholarships (vouchers) to Kansas students who are eligible for free lunch and attend one of the 100 lowest performing elementary schools to attend a “qualified private school” of their parents’ choice. The overwhelming majority of the participating private schools are religious. The total amount of allowable tax credits per year (deductions from state revenue) is $10 million; since the program began in 2015, roughly $6 million in funds have been distributed.



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