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April 6, 2018

Montana Supreme Court Considers Constitutional Challenge to State Financial Support for Private Religious Education

Tax Credits for Religious Education Violate Separation of Church 

The Montana Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case to decide whether the Montana Constitution allows for public dollars to fund private, religious education. The ACLU of Montana has filed as a friend of the court in support of the defendant, the Department of Revenue (DOR). DOR is arguing that tax-credit scholarships for religious schools violate Montana’s Constitution. DOR previously passed a rule prohibiting tax credits for religious education scholarships. DOR determined that such tax credits violate the Montana Constitution’s “No-Aid” clause.  The Court must now decide if DOR’s rule can stand.

“Montana students and their parents have the right to choose a religious education,” said Alex Rate ACLU of Montana’s Legal Director, “but taxpayers are not and should not be required to fund that decision. Religious freedom flourishes best when religion is funded privately, without support from taxpayers and the state. The rule challenged in this case upholds that fundamental principle.”

Delegates to Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention considered and rejected allowing indirect state aid to fund religious education. The Montana Constitution’s No-Aid Clause (Article X, Section 6) bars the state from providing “direct or indirect” aid for religious education. This clause—based on its text, history, and court interpretations—prohibits any state funding of religion. In fact, it is stricter than the federal Establishment Clause, which bans federal government from declaring and financially supporting a national religion.

“The tax-credit scholarship program funnels taxpayer dollars into religious schools. Those schools are free to discriminate against students on a variety of grounds,” said Executive Director Caitlin Borgmann. “For example, students can be excluded from a private school on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or disability. These schools are also exempt from meeting the same educational requirements as public schools.”

The Montana Quality Education Coalition, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Anti-Defamation League have also signed on as friends of the court in support of the Department of Revenue.

The Supreme Court will consider today’s arguments and issue a ruling in the coming months. 

Caitlin Borgmann (Executive Director) and Alex Rate (Legal Director) from the ACLU of Montana are available for interview. 

 

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