(NBC News) The Supreme Court takes up the sensitive issue of religion in public life Wednesday, considering whether states violate the Constitution if they prevent religious groups from receiving some state benefits.
The justices are asked to strike a balance between the desire of a state to keep government out of religion and the claims of residents that religious faith should not freeze them out of state programs intended to help everyone.
The case comes from Montana, which established a program in 2015 to provide a tax credit of up to $150 a year for people and businesses that donate to private schools. The organizations that receive the contributions then give financial aid to parents, who decide which private schools their children should attend.
But shortly after the program was launched, a state agency barred any of the scholarship money from ending up at religious schools. Montana invoked a provision of the state Constitution that prohibits “any direct or indirect appropriation or payment … to aid any church, school … controlled in whole or in part by any church.”
That threatened to shut the program down, because 90 percent of the private schools that signed up had religious affiliations.
Three mothers from low-income families sued to challenge the restriction. One of them, Kendra Espinoza, uses the scholarship money to send her two daughters to Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, working three jobs and holding yard sales to help afford the payments.
“I chose that school because of the Christian-based education. It comes with a lot more of the values that I want to teach my children,” she said in an interview. “If the scholarships are available, why should we be denied, as opposed to another family that chooses a different school for their children?”
The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the scholarship program violated the state Constitution, so it struck down the entire law, eliminating the payments for both religious and secular schools. The program was allowed to continue for the current school year, however, while the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.
“The U.S. Constitution requires the government to be neutral, not hostile, towards religion,” said Erica Smith of the Institute for Justice, the nonprofit libertarian law firm representing the women. “They should be treating families that want to go to religious schools the same as families that want to go to nonreligious schools.”
Not doing so, Smith said, violates the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
“Prohibiting all religious options in otherwise generally available student aid programs rejects that neutrality and shows inherent hostility toward religion,” she said.