Chief Justice John Roberts continues to confound pundits with a majority opinion turned in on Tuesday. The Supreme Court has ruled that a Montana law excluding religious schools from receiving state scholarships is unconstitutional. In the tiebreaking vote on the 5-4 decision, Justice Roberts once again proves his conservative instincts win out in religious cases.
The vote hands a huge win to conservative religious groups. Religious activists have railed against state attempts to make private schools not receive state funding. These “school choice” advocates have argued that they have a right to enroll their children at religious private schools. As such, they argue, they also have a right to access the same state funds as public schools.
Ruling Hands Win to Conservatives
In the 5-4 ruling, Justice Roberts sided with the court’s conservative wing. The case, which began in 2015, is a bit complex. Originally, Montana set up a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for organizations that donated money to private school scholarships. This resulted in a lengthy court battle where the Montana Supreme Court ruled the program unconstitutional.
The state’s reasoning was that the state couldn’t fund religious education. However, the Supreme Court’s majority took exception to this. The state had reasoned that some seventy percent of its private schools were religious, thus making the law unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed.
“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 in the majority. The human resources management involved with these schools can’t be a factor of consideration, Roberts argued.
The concept of “school choice,” or affluent parents sending their children to private schools instead of public schools, has been a major aspect of the Trump Administration’s push for rulings like the Supreme Court’s. Betsy DeVos, the controversial Secretary of Education, has long advocated for state funding of private schools.
This decision sets the precedent for states to allow for funding of religious schooling. A number of conservative states will likely now do just that. Opponents of the provision argue that this is a misuse of public funds. They argue that public funding of private religious education goes against the tenets of separation of church and state.
However, the Supreme Court has increasingly leaned away from interpreting laws about religious institutions as being counter to government. Roberts, in the majority opinion, writes “We have repeatedly held that the Establishment Clause is not offended when religious observers and organizations benefit from neutral government programs.”