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‘Town Crier’ newsletter – Briefs from the Region (1) – 1/23/19

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George Washington Law School

Supreme Court hears case on taxpayer aid to religious institutions

In 2015, the Montana Legislature passed a bill providing a dollar-for-dollar match in tax credits for individuals who donate to “organizations that provide scholarship money to students in private schools,” reports National Public Radio. The case has roots in an organization called Big Sky, which raised money for scholarships by taking advantage of the tax incentive, doling out money raised to 13 schools. Normally, this is not an issue. However, 12 of the 13 schools—92 percent of recipients—were religious institutions. The Montana Supreme Court ultimately struck down the tax credit, claiming it conflicted with a measure in the state’s constitution that called for bars on all aid for religious education. The fight then rose to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue case, with backing from Trump Administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an advocate of “faith-based education,” and Kendra Espinoza, a Kalispell resident, taking the helm as lead plaintiff. “I wanted my kids to have a really strong sense of right and wrong from a biblical perspective,” said Espinoza, according to NPR. “I want them to understand that our sense of ethics and our morals come from God’s word, not just man’s ideas.” Espinoza and her legal team argue equal protection of the law, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, means the tax credit should be applied to all private schools, no matter their religious affiliation. The crux of the issue lies in a piece of antiquity, when then-Speaker of the House of Representatives James G. Blaine introduced a “no-aid” amendment to the federal Constitution in 1875—Montana adopted such a provision in 1889, a move regarded by many as a means to cripple the influence of growing numbers of Catholics in the area. “Baby Blaine Amendments,” today, bare his name due to their alleged similarities in motives, and Espinoza’s lawyers argue the Montana Supreme Court’s decision is in direct violation to federal protections. At the heart of the Supreme Court case, in which justices heard arguments on Jan. 22: should taxpayers be forced to subsidize such religious education programs?

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