Helena, Montana; November 4, 2015: Tomorrow (Nov. 5), at a hearing before the Montana Department of Revenue, an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) will testify against the Department’s proposal to ban religious-based schools and their students from participating in Montana’s new Scholarship Tax Credit program.
PLF Attorney Wen Fa will argue that this proposed regulation violates the program’s intended purpose of expanding educational choices and opportunities for Montana families and school-aged children; and that it violates the Constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom and equal protection of the laws.
Donor-supported PLF is a nonprofit watchdog organization that litigates nationwide for limited government and individual rights, including educational choice.
In opposing the regulations, PLF represents the Association of Christian Schools International, a nonprofit organization of faith-based schools which also serves as a school accrediting and licensing body. Its membership includes 3,000 schools across America, with 11 in Montana.
“These regulations are unfair and unjust because they limit the educational choices that the Legislature sought to offer Montana’s families, particularly low-income households,” said Fa. “In fact, of the 139 schools on the state’s list of private schools in Montana, more than two-thirds would be excluded from the scholarship program because they have religious affiliations. It appears that 88 percent of students who are currently in non-public schools would be denied the opportunity to apply for the tax credit scholarship, simply because of the religious affiliation of their schools.
“These restrictions are flat-out unconstitutional,” Fa continued. “By excluding schools and students from the scholarship program based solely on the schools’ religious affiliations, state bureaucrats would be violating the Constitution’s guarantees of religious liberty and equal protection of laws for all people regardless of their faith or their philosophical viewpoints. If the Department of Revenue insists on adopting these regulations, it will be inviting a federal constitutional lawsuit under the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause.”
The Department of Revenue hearing at which Wen Fa will testify tomorrow starts at 1:30 p.m., in the Fourth Floor East Conference Room of the Sam W. Mitchell Building, located at 125 North Roberts in Helena.
Before the hearing — at 12:45 p.m. — Wen Fa will be available for comments to the media, and interviews, outside the Mitchell Building, on the North Roberts sidewalk.
Enacted by the Montana Legislature this year, and due to take effect at the beginning of 2016, the Scholarship Tax Credit program is intended to encourage educational choice, by allowing individuals and businesses to donate to non-government, nonprofit scholarship organizations in return for a corresponding income tax credit. The scholarship organizations, in turn, provide tuition scholarships to help students attend a public or private school of their choice.
The scholarship money is distributed directly to the private schools selected by the scholarship students and their parents.
The legislation says scholarship organizations can disburse funds to any “qualified education provider,” which it defines as any accredited private school.
However, the regulators of the Department of Revenue have proposed to exclude schools that are “owned or controlled in whole or in part by any church, religious sect, or denomination,” or that are accredited by a “faith-based organization.”
“Unelected bureaucrats cannot be allowed to undermine a promising school choice program, especially with restrictions that punish people based on their religion,” said Fa.
“Either the agency withdraws these unseemly and unconstitutional proposals, or it will need to answer for them in court.”
About Pacific Legal Foundation
Donor-supported Pacific Legal Foundation is a watchdog organization that litigates for limited government, property rights, and individual rights — including educational choice — in courts nationwide. PLF represents all clients without charging attorneys’ fees.
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