WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states may not exclude religious schools from programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools.
The decision was the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings interpreting the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion to bar the government from treating religious groups differently from secular ones.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion in the 5-to-4 ruling. The court’s four more liberal members dissented.
“A state need not subsidize private education,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
The case involved a Montana program enacted in 2015 “to provide parental and student choice in education.” The program was financed by private contributions eligible for tax credits, and it provided scholarships to students in private schools.
Soon after the program started, a state agency said students attending religious schools were not eligible in light of a provision of the state’s Constitution that bars the use of government money 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.”
Three mothers with children at Stillwater Christian School, in Kalispell, Mont., sued, saying that provision of the state Constitution violated the protections of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled against them, shutting down the entire program for all schools, religious or not.
The decision built on earlier rulings on the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. In 2017, for instance, in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the Supreme Court ruled that Missouri had violated the First Amendment by barring religious institutions from a state program to make playgrounds safer, even though the state’s Constitution called for strict separation of church and state.
“The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority.
At the same time, writing for four justices, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized the narrowness of the court’s decision. “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” he wrote. “We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
A 2004 Supreme Court decision, Locke v. Davey, allowed Washington State to offer college scholarships to all students except those pursuing degrees in devotional theology. That case involved direct support for religion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the Trinity Lutheran case. Playgrounds, he argued, were a different matter.
The program at issue in the Montana case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, No. 18-1195, was somewhere in the middle. It involved elements of religious instruction, but it did not concern a targeted exclusion of state support for vocational religious instruction.