WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court delivered a major victory Tuesday to parents seeking state aid for their children's religious school education.
The court's conservative majority ruled 5-4 that states offering scholarships to students in private schools cannot exclude religious schools from such programs. The decision was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who has joined the liberal justices in three other major rulings this month.
The court stopped short of requiring states to fund religious education, ruling only that programs cannot differentiate between religious and secular private schools.
"A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious," Roberts said.
It was a decision long sought by proponents of school choice and vehemently opposed by teachers' unions, who fear it could drain needed tax dollars from struggling public schools.
The case was brought by three mothers of religious school students from Montana who sought $500 tuition scholarships funded by a state tax credit program. The state's highest court struck down the program, citing the separation of church and state. In response, state officials ended the entire program.
The Supreme Court's liberal justices seized on that point in three separate dissents. They said Montana solved the discrimination by ending the program.
"Petitioners may still send their children to a religious school," Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. "There simply are no scholarship funds to be had."
But Roberts and other conservative justices said the no-aid policy had its roots in constitutional amendments in 37 states, many rooted in 19th-century anti-Catholic sentiment, that blocked religious schools from receiving public funds.
"The Blaine Amendment was 'born of bigotry' and 'arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general,'" he wrote. "Many of its state counterparts have a similarly 'shameful pedigree.'"
The court's ruling brought together four Catholic justices with Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was raised Catholic but attends an Episcopal church. Dissenting were three Jewish justices and one Catholic, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Kendra Espinoza, the lead plaintiff, called it a "historic moment." The court, she said in a conference call, gave her and other parents and students "an ability to exercise our religion as we see fit."
Lawyers at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that represented Espinoza, said the immediate impact will be felt in several states including Maine, Vermont, Missouri, Idaho and South Dakota.
Conservative groups had flooded the high court with arguments supporting Espinoza and her fellow Montana parents' cause. Having long sought legislative backing for school voucher and tax credit programs, they saw the case as a judicial promised land.
“The weight that this monumental decision carries is immense, as it’s an extraordinary victory for student achievement, parental control, equality in educational opportunities, and First Amendment rights,” said Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform.
Teachers unions and civil rights groups warned that if the floodgates open for religious school funding, public schools that educate about 90% of students will suffer.
“Never in more than two centuries of American history has the free exercise clause of the First Amendment been wielded as a weapon to defund and dismantle public education," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The decision also was denounced by groups advocating the separation of church and state.
“Let’s be clear about what just happened: The Supreme Court has decided that atheist taxpayers are now required to fund religious schools,” said Robyn Blumner, president of the Center for Inquiry. “Members of non-Christian faiths are now required to fund Christian education."
Nationwide, tax credits and vouchers help about 500,000 students attend religious schools. But 17 states specifically block religious school choice programs.
The Trump administration had sided with the parents. President Donald Trump has long championed prayer in schools, and January's oral argument in the case was attended by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime proponent of religious schools.
"The Trump administration believes that school choice is a civil rights issue and that no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. The president, she said, "will fight for school choice, and he will always defend our first freedom: the free exercise of religion."
The ruling was another in a long line of Supreme Court decisions upholding religious freedom. In recent years, the justices have upheld public prayer at government meetings and exempted some religious objectors from laws regarding insurance coverage for contraception and participation in same-sex marriages.
Last year, the court ruled 7-2 that a mammoth Latin cross on government land in Bladensburg, Maryland, does not have to be moved or altered in the name of church-state separation.
And in a 2017 case cited by conservative justices as paving the way for the school choice decision, the justices ruled 7-2 that a Lutheran church in Missouri was eligible for public funds to resurface its playground. Roberts called the state's exclusion of the church "odious to our Constitution."
Civil rights groups and teachers unions had cited a different 7-2 decision from the high court in 2004 when the justices upheld a public scholarship program that excluded students pursuing theology degrees. But Roberts said that was different because the funds would have helped train a student for the ministry.
The high court is expected to announce two other major cases on religious freedom in the coming days. In one, religious nonprofits such as charities and universities want to be exempted from a government policy requiring that employers offer free insurance coverage for contraceptives. In the other, religious employers want to be free to make hiring and firing decisions without being bound by employment discrimination laws.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court: Religious school students eligible for state aid