The Blaine Truth on Espinoza v. Montana

July 1, 2020

After an eleven-year legal battle, Montana may resume its policy of providing equal financial opportunity to students who want to attend secular or religious schools. This is a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Espinoza v. Montana, where a 5-4 majority ruled that the Montana Department of Revenue policy which prevented students from receiving state scholarships unless they attended a secular school violated the First Amendment.

Specifically, the court ruled that the Free Exercise Clause, which applies to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment, "protects religious observers against unequal treatment" and against "laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status." By discriminating against religious schools, the Department of Revenue violated the First Amendment, and the court's decision now means Montana parents can send their children to religious schools with money received from state scholarships.

Importantly, Espinoza v. Montana does not merely apply to Montana families. This ruling has far reaching implications for religious freedom for the rest of the country. In fact, because of the Supreme Court's decision, historically problematic "Blaine amendments" may soon be relegated to the dustbin of history. The first "Blaine amendment," named after Congressman James Blaine, was introduced as an amendment to the United States Constitution in 1875. With America's changing religious composition, Blaine's goal was to add specific language to the Constitution that would prevent public funds from being provided to religiously affiliated schools. It seems apparent from the known historical evidence that Blaine's proposal was aimed at the Catholic church. Despite its defeat on a federal level, at least thirty-seven states adopted the Blaine Amendment into their state constitution.

With this historical context in view, Jeff Lazloffy, President of the Montana Family Foundation, joined me on Washington Watch to explain the significant of the Supreme Court's decision. As Lazloffy explained, "This was an 11-year battle for us. And not only will the decision benefit Montana students, but the court ruled so broadly that we can strike religiously discriminatory language from the constitutions in thirty-seven states."

Regarding the specifics of this case, tax-credits given to Montanans were used to provide the scholarships. Citizens have the option of contributing to a scholarship fund. If they choose to do so, they are able to receive a tax-credit for the contribution. As Lazloffy told me, this scholarship program was written "specifically to skirt Blaine because the court had already ruled in a similar case out of Arizona that tax credit scholarships were not public dollars because the money had never transferred to the public side. So, there was no Blaine implication. And so that's the reason that we did a tax credit scholarship bill rather than a voucher or something, something else."

Prior to this weeks' decision, Montana's Supreme Court ruled against the provision of the public scholarship to religiously affiliated schools. In their decision, they specifically cited the state's Blaine amendment. Consequently, the United States Supreme Court took up the case and ultimately ruled against the Blaine amendment and the Montana Department of Revenue's policy. Hence, Lazloffy says, "And that's what set up this this perfect challenge to Blaine amendments across the United States."