Montana Supreme Court Rules Against Tax Credit Program That Allowed for Funding of Private Religious Schools

The Montana Supreme Court has struck down a tax credit program that allowed for the funding of private religious schools.

In a decision released Wednesday, the high court ruled 5-2 in Espinoza v. Department of Revenue that the Tax Credit Program, originally approved by the state legislature in 2015, violated the Montana Constitution.

In 2015, the Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 410, which allowed tax credits for donations of up to $150 to either private school scholarships or educational programs in public schools.

Montana’s Department of Revenue originally barred religious schools from the program, citing Article X, Section 6, which says the state government “shall not make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property for any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”

Montana is one of 36 states to have adopted what is commonly called a “Blaine Amendment.” Named after nineteenth century Republican Senator James Blaine of Maine, these amendments were originally enacted to prevent Catholic schools from getting government aid.

In 2016, a judge issued a preliminary injunction allowing students at religious schools to receive the scholarships, according to the Great Falls Tribune.

Justice Laurie McKinnon authored the majority opinion, reversing the lower court decision. Calling the Tax Credit Program “facially unconstitutional,” the judge wrote that the state constitution “broadly prohibits any type of direct or indirect aid” to sectarian religious entities.

“We conclude that Montana’s Constitution more broadly prohibits ‘any’ state aid to sectarian schools and draws a ‘more stringent line than that drawn’ by its federal counterpart,” wrote McKinnon.

“The Legislature, by enacting the Tax Credit Program, involved itself in donations to religiously-affiliated private schools … The Legislature, by enacting a statute that provides a dollar-for-dollar credit against taxes owed to the state, is the entity providing aid to sectarian schools via tax credits in violation of Article X, Section 6.”

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Michael Gryboski