Espinoza, et al. v. Montana Department of Revenue, et al. No. 18-1195.  Oral argument set for January 22, 2020.


Many families hope that education will pave the way to successful adulthood.  Frequently private schooling is sought to serve that end, but many families find that no matter how arduously they work, the funds necessary to obtain that private schooling remain elusive:  scholarship help is a necessity for many who want to send their children to private school.   

In 2015, Montana enacted legislation providing a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, up to $150.00 annually, for donations to scholarship providing non-profit entities.  The non-profit entities would in turn use the donations to award scholarships, paid directly to the schools.  

Some 28 states have enacted at least 57 programs similar to Montana’s, called “school choice” programs.   Almost all private schools in Montana were qualified recipients of these tax advantaged scholarships. Yet very many of these schools were directly or indirectly affiliated with religious institutions.

Montana’s Constitution, Article X, Section 6, Part 1 prohibits the payment of state money, directly or indirectly, to fund religious activity.  This limitation was incorporated in the tax credit statute. Following enactment of the tax credit, state tax authorities promulgated a regulation echoing the preclusion of the use of tax money for religious entities.

Fearing that scholarships were in jeopardy, parents sued the state to enjoin it from precluding awards of scholarships to religious educational institutions, asserting that precluding aid would violate their First Amendment and Equal Protection rights.  The state countered that permitting the scholarships would run afoul of the state’s First Amendment and state constitutional obligations. 

The parents prevailed in the trial court but on appeal the Supreme Court of Montana, unable to split the constitutional baby between sectarian and nonsectarian beneficiaries of the tax credit program, declared the entire statute unconstitutional.  

The matter is now before the Supreme Court. 

Petitioners’ Challenges.  Petitioners urge the United States Supreme Court to reject the Montana Supreme Court’s wholesale invalidation of the entire tax credit statute as in violation of the federal religion clauses.  The parents ask the Court to determine the Montana state constitutional amendment forbidding aid to religion to be unconstitutional as applied to them, and to find Montana’s actions to be discrimination against religion in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Petitioners point out that Montana’s prohibition on state funding of any religious activity had its origins in the anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments of the 19th Century.  As religion is an inherently suspect clause, the state constitution as applied offends the 14th Amendment Equal Protection clause, petitioners argue.  

The wholesale ban on any and all state aid to religion does not support government neutrality but rather evinces hostility toward religion and, as such, cannot survive constitutional review, petitioners argue.  This is true, petitioners assert, whether any of the tests of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) or Lemon v. Kurtzman,   403 U.S. 602 (1971) or the teachings of the recent Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012  (2017) are applied.

Zelman requires only a religiously neutral program with choice centered in the individual, not the state, which petitioners assert is true of the 2015 Montana legislation.  In contrast, the state’s ban of all aid is hostile, not neutral, and works to deprive individual families of choice. Petitioners submit that however awkward it may be in application, Lemon in no sense endorses the antipathy to religion that Montana’s actions evince.

Montana’s dismantling of the tax credit program, which was available to all without respect to religion, advances no secular purpose where, petitioners argue, its only effect is to trample the rights of the religious with no concern for students.  Petitioners urge that the preclusion of state funding of religious professionals’ training, found to be unconstitutional in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), is inapposite, for that case concerned direct aid to churches in developing their clergy, which is not true of the Montana case.   

Montana’s Response.  Montana does not argue mootness, but does argue that the Montana Supreme Court’s invalidation of the tax advantaged school choice plan does away with constitutional concerns.  All aid has been precluded: no hostility, disparity or discrimination can be found where the statute no longer exists.  

Montana perceives that Espinoza spotlights the intersection of church/state traditions:  non-discrimination is crucial to religious freedom. The Establishment Clause permits but does not compel aid to religion. If the state is opposed to aiding religious schools the state can, as it has done here, decline to offer any aid at all.  Because petitioners concede that this is true, Montana argues, no constitutional claim remains.  

There can be no intrusion on the Free Exercise of religion where no program exists at all, the state submits.  Invalidation of the entire program works no coercion, as  the invalidation restrains the government, not the individual.

Montana denies that the 1972 re-enactment of the state constitutional no-aid clause ratified or endorsed the religious antipathy that gave rise to the 19th century Blaine Amendments.  Montana offers that the new constitution, enacted in 1972, sought to protect religious liberty by means of strict state separation from religion.  

In this case the state supreme court has protected religious freedom by enforcing the structural barrier between religious schools and the government that the no-aid clause contemplates.  Striking down the tax credit in its entirety ensures that no one is preferred and that no one is penalized for exercising their faith. 

Historic opposition to state funding of religious entities demonstrates the constitutionality of such prohibitions, the state contends.  Trinity Lutheran is not on point, for the tax credit plan does not involve a generally available benefit.

The state has not banned aid to education.  Moreover, where thirty eight states fall in line with Montana’s position, this is history to which the U.S. Supreme Court ought to defer.

The U.S. Supreme Court should not interfere with the constitutional and judicial authority of the state by enforcing a statute that the state Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional, the state submits.   If it is conceded — and it is — that the state could decline to provide a school choice program, then it cannot be correct that if a school choice program is forbidden by the state constitution, then the application of the state constitution must be in violation of the federal constitution, and, therefore, a void statute must be enforced.

As there is no longer a school choice tax credit program, there is no unequal treatment, and therefore no Equal Protection clause violation.  Nor is there any Establishment Clause issue whether the state chooses to offer greater separation than the federal religion clause requires.

The state offers that the Supreme Court cannot recognize an amorphous “free exercise” violation where petitioners have not identified any violation. The Free Exercise clause inhibits the government: that some difficulty in exercising religion might beforeall individuals does not rise to the level of unconstitutional government prohibition on the free exercise of religious rights.

The operation, or not, of a tax advantage works no prohibition on free exercise.  Anyone can give to scholarships as they see fit: they just will not receive a tax credit.

There is no generally available benefit from which petitioners have been excluded because the tax credit program has been declared void ab initio

Without more, the state constitution’s no-aid close does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. In all, the fact that the Establishment Clause may allow a measure does not mean that the Free Exercise Clause compels it.  The state notes that where school choice is concerned, Justice Beyer has inquired of the fate of the interests of the families who would not wish to fund religious education at all.

Montana cautions that if the Supreme Court were to invalidate Montana’s no aid clause, grave constitutional concerns would arise.  Zelman does not require a single answer to whether  a “no aid” provision helps or hinders religion  Petitioners’ position lacks good sense: it is unimaginable that a statute declared unconstitutional under state law can spring back to life following federal constitutional review.

Zelman observed that choice that includes religion need not violate the Establishment Clause but declining funding is not the establishment of religion.  Lemon poses no problem because there are no unconstitutional effects created by the Montana Supreme Court’s invalidation of the school choice program.  Entitlement to a tax preference is not an establishment clause issue. Similarly, across the board disentitlement works no entitlement. 

Petitioners’ Reply.  Petitioners liken the state’s position to that of the authorities who shuttered schools rather than conform to the constitutional command to desegregate. 

Where the state emphasizes that petitioners concede that the state need not offer an aid program, the petitioners point to a comparable concession by the state:  the state cannot avoid the reality that the provision of a program that excluded religious schools would violate the federal constitution. Where protected classes are concerned, the Supreme Court has recognized that invalidating a program to prevent inclusion is just as discriminatory as exclusion from the start.  

It is not true that the Montana Supreme Court ‘harmonized’ federal and state constitutional interests.  Rather, the state understood that severability — permitting secular while forbidding sectarian aid — was a constitutional impossibility.  Eliminating a program to avoid unconstitutional results does not avoid constitutional concerns but confirms them.

Trinity Lutheran cautions that the Court ought not engage in a wooden application of Free Exercise principles:  indirect coercion or indirect penalties are within the ambit of the Free Exercise clause.  

The only reason the school choice tax credit was eliminated was concern over aid to religious schools.  The result in this case is worse than that in Trinity Lutheran, for the Espinoza petitioners have already relied on the availability of aid.  The additional financial burden and potential educational exclusion imposed on the petitioning parents falls within the concerns the Free Exercise Clause contemplates.

Locke concerned direct funding of professional clergy education, a circumstance not present here.  Further, petitioners argue that there is no “use” limitation on Trinity Lutheran’s holding.  Such an argument is irrelevant, nonetheless, where status discrimination exists: aid will be denied based only on religious status.  If religion and religious education cannot be disentangled, the state disproves its own argument: status v. use is a distinction without a difference.

Contrary to the state’s assertions, the weight of history is not on the state’s side, petitioners counter.  Most early considerations of government involvement in religion concerned direct aid to churches. This is not the case here, and there is no overwhelming reason to believe that aid that could benefit religious and secular schools would be objectionable to the founders. 

The proffered reasons for the wholesale reenactment of the Blaine Amendment in 1972 are of no moment, petitioners insist, where the significance of the measure is that of singling out religion for different treatment, which strikes at the core of Equal Protection clause concerns.  Even if it were accepted that a law’s constitutionality, or not,  cannot be determined by the motives of its enactors, the effects of a statute are reasonably evaluated in addressing constitutional concerns.  

As Montana has entirely banned aid to students seeking religiously affiliated private education, Zelman’s principles of neutrality and individual choice are decimated.

The question is not of “resurrection” of a defunct statute:  the issue is that Montana’s Supreme court determination forever precludes aid.  Similarly, the state’s resuscitation rhetoric must fail, as statutes are routinely revived following judicial review: so doing works no “inverse federalism.”

Petitioners submit that the federalism fears described by the state are phantasms.  There exists ample room for Montana to work within the “play in the joints” of the religion causes.  Montana may enact a school choice program without violating the Establishment Clause but it need not, and this would not violate the Free Exercise Clause. In contrast, adopting a wholesale ban on aid to religion would violate both religion clauses.  

Principal Briefs

Brief for Petitioners

Brief for Respondents

Reply Merits Brief

Joint Appendix

Amicus Submissions:  Note that the United States, as Amicus for Petitioners, Will Participate in Oral Argument 

The United States

Petitioners’ Amici

131 Current and Former State Legislators

Agudath Israel of America

Alliance for Choice in Education

American Center for Law & Justice

Americans for Prosperity and Yes Every Kid

Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization and Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association et al.

Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence

Center for Education Reform et al

Christian Legal Society et al

EdChoice, Reason Foundation, and The Individual Rights Foundation

Forge Youth Mentoring

Foundation for Moral Law

Georgia Goal Scholarship Program Inc

Honorable Scott Walker

Independence-Institute

Jerry and Kathy Armstrong et al

Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty

Justice and Freedom Fund et al

Liberty Justice Center and American Federation for Children

Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Montana Catholic School Parents, Catholic Association Foundation, and Invest in Education Foundation

Montana Family Foundation

Oklahoma et al

Opportunity Scholarship Fund

Pioneer Institute

Rusty Bowers Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives et al

Senator Daines et al

The Becket Fund For Religious Liberty

The Rutherford Institute

Respondents’ Amici

American Federation of Teachers et al

Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Colorado et al

Freedom from Religion Foundation et al

Montana Association of Rabbis

Montana Constitutional Convention Delegates

Montana Northern Wyoming Conference United Church of Christ

National Disability Rights Network et al

National School Boards Association et al.

Public Funds Public Schools

Religion Law Scholars

Religious and Civil Rights Organizations

State of Maine

Tennessee Education Association

 

 

 

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