“Blow to public ed” or “win for religious freedom?” Montana reactions mixed after Sup Court ruling

Reactions were mixed on Tuesday after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Montana discriminated against religious schools by cutting them out of a tax-credit plan meant to help fund private education for the poor.

The court’s 5-4 ruling received praise from Sen. Steve Daines and scorn from one of the state’s largest unions, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which called the decision a major blow to public education.

“Today’s decision violates Montana’s commitment to public education, our children, and our constitution,” MFPE President Amanda Curtis said in a statement. “Extremist special interests are manipulating our tax code to rob Montana children of quality education while padding the pockets of those who run exclusive, discriminatory private schools.”

Three mothers of students who attended Stillwater Christian School in northwestern Montana brought the challenge after state tax law prohibited them from paying tuition with scholarship funds from the credit program.

Curtis said the court’s decision will funnel billions of taxpayer dollars into religious, private and for-profit schools with no accountability – all at the expense of public education.

“During this time of uncertainty, Montana’s public educators have stepped up to the plate and they deserve our support now more than ever,” Curtis said. “Public dollars should support public institutions that benefit all of us, not private, religious institutions that benefit a select few.”

Others however praised the ruling, including Sen. Steve Daines, who billed the court’s decision as a major win for Montana families. He described the case as one of the most important equal protection and religious freedom cases in recent history.

“I’m very glad the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn the State of Montana’s discriminatory action and support three Montana mothers who were trying to do what’s best for their children’s education,” Daines said. “Today is a major victory across Montana and the country for religious liberty. Religious discrimination has no place in our country.”

In September 2019, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty – a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. – filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court in support of the three Montana parents, arguing that religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to public benefit programs.

In their decision, justices said that so-called Blaine Amendments were “born of bigotry,” adding that the “no-aid provisions of the 19th century hardly evince a tradition that should inform our understanding of the Free Exercise Clause.”

The Blaine Amendment restricted any direct or indirect aid to schools owned or operated by a church, sect or denomination.

“Blaine Amendments are a nasty part of our nation’s history, representing the worst kind of religious bigotry from our past,” said Diana Verm, representing Becket. “The Supreme Court was right to recognize the unconstitutionality of Montana’s Blaine Amendment and we are confident that this ruling will rid our country of these pernicious laws.”