High court affirms religious access to state programs

Ruben Fields
July 1, 2020

"The Supreme Court says travel website Booking.com can trademark its name, a ruling that also impacts other companies whose name is a generic word followed by ".com".

Tuesday's ruling is a victory for school choice proponents and some conservative religious groups who had challenged the provision in court.

The program provided individuals and corporations a tax credit for giving as much as $150 annually to a nonprofit student scholarship organization helping poor students attend private schools.

The court ruled in that case that churches and other religious entities can not be flatly denied public money even in states whose constitutions explicitly ban such funding. In the past, school choice advocates maintained a modest posture in the High Court, asking the justices to uphold low-dollar voucher programs in OH and Arizona. Now, families who receive education vouchers may apply those vouchers at any school they wish to attend, regardless of its religious affiliation or lack of such an affiliation.

"The Free Exercise Clause protects against even "indirect coercion, ' and a State 'punishe [s] the free exercise of religion" by disqualifying the religious from government aid as Montana did here", Roberts wrote. The program approved by the state legislature includes Christian and other religious schools. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) have proposed a $5 billion tax credit to support private education, through which participating states provide dollar-for-dollar credits to taxpayers who contribute to scholarship programs.

Delivering the court's opinion, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "A State need not subsidize private education".

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"Faced with public schools that were culturally Protestant and with curriculum [s] and textbooks that were, consequently, rife with material that Catholics and Jews found offensive, many Catholics and Orthodox Jews created separate schools", and those "who could afford to do so sent their children to" those schools", continued Alito, citing a brief by the Orthodox Union that was submitted in a similar Supreme Court case in 2016. That violates the free exercise clause, he said.

The high court's decision is "as much of a certain death blow [to Blaine Amendments] as we could have asked for", said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket, a religious liberty organization. Most private schools in Montana are Christian. "States are prohibited from discriminating against religious schools".

"The Constitution ensures that religious Americans will not be discriminated against due to their faith". The state court struck down the scholarship program in its entirety.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent that the ruling risks "entanglement and conflict" over where to draw the line between allowing free exercise of religion while protecting against government endorsement of religion, both of which are required under the Constitution.

He continued, saying "in its ruling today in Espinoza, the Supreme Court has clearly rejected any kind of discrimination based upon the religious "status" of a family, school or student".

Roberts said the no-aid provision "bars religious schools from public benefits exclusively because of the religious character of the schools".

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