February 16, 2016

A call to end religious discrimination in Montana's schools

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney

iStock_000046252464_Small-700x400Last week, PLF urged a federal court to freeze a Montana rule that forbids privately donated tuition assistance to kids attending religious schools while the court considers the constitutionality of this bald discrimination.

Montana’s scholarship tax-credit program offers income tax credits for any who donate funds to help Montana kids afford the school of their choice. But the Montana Department of Revenue adopted a rule that prevents any religious school from participating in the program. Student scholarship organizations that receive and distribute scholarship donations can only apply the tuition help to secular schools. Since most Montana private schools are religious, the rule has gutted the program, leaving behind a limp effigy of true choice.

Our motion for preliminary injunction argues that this exclusion of religious schools violates the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The rule tell families, if you choose a religious school, you forfeit your chance at tuition assistance. It tells donors, if you want your money to help students, regardless of the school they pick, you’ll have to forego the tax credit. It tells schools, if you want students who need this tuition assistance, you’ll have to abandon your religious affiliations. These burdens on religious decisions violate the right to freely exercise religion. The rule also denies religious schools and families access to a benefit solely on the basis of their religious status, which violates the Establishment and Equal Protection guarantees of the Constitution.

The Montana Department of Revenue says this rule is necessary to prevent public money from being used to benefit religious organizations. This rinky-dink defense omits a key fact: none of the money under the scholarship tax-credit program comes from a government pocket. These are all private donations. Taxpayers are not being forced to fund or support religion. Montana can’t deny families a shot at school choice just because they want to send their child to a religious school.

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