After an abysmal month at the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts and the conservative wing of the Court handed school choice and religious freedom proponents a major victory last week in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts ruled that Montana’s application of a “no-aid provision” discriminated against religious schools and families, in violation the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In 2015, the State of Montana enacted a tax-credit scholarship program to help low-income families send their children to the better schools, including private, faith-based institutions. Sadly, the Montana Department of Revenue subsequently issued a rule declaring that children receiving these scholarships could not use them at religious schools. The Montana State Supreme Court agreed, citing the infamous “Blaine Amendment” in Montana’s State Constitution.
Thirty-eight states, including New Mexico, have the discriminatory Blaine Amendment in their state constitutions. The Amendment arose in the late 19th century in an effort to keep Catholic influence from public schools. In the Court’s opinion, Chief Justice Roberts provided the historical context, noting that “[t]he Blaine Amendment was ‘born of bigotry’ and ‘arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general.’”
Since that time, the Blaine Amendment has been repeatedly used to discriminate against religious schools and institutions, and to exclude them from public funding and programs. In 2012, for example, two anti-religious activists sued the State of New Mexico, arguing that our textbook lending program violated the state constitution because it allowed children from religious schools to access educational materials available to children in other schools (Moses v. Skandera). To defend their case, the activists pointed to the Blaine Amendment found in Article XII, Section 3, of New Mexico’s Constitution.
Thankfully, five Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the bigotry of the Blaine Amendment, ruling that the U.S. Constitution “condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them.”
With the Court’s ruling, Montana families are now free to choose the education that best suits their children, and religious schools cannot be disqualified from a school choice program simply because they are faith-based. Although New Mexico currently has no such programs or scholarships available, this decision provides yet another reason why our state should enact school choice legislation and offer families more options when it comes to educating their children.
No parent should be discriminated against for choosing a better education and future for their child, and no government should be able to place limitations on a child’s future because of that child’s zip code or family income.
We want to thank our allies, including Montana Family Foundation who authored the legislation, and several of our New Mexico State Legislators who signed an amicus brief in support of the petitioners in the case—Sen. William Sharer, Rep. Rod Montoya, Rep. Cathrynn Brown, Rep. Rebecca Dow, Rep. David Gallegos, Rep. Gregg Schmedes, and Rep. James Strickler.
Thank you all for helping us fight for children, parents, and families, and better opportunities for all.
President & Executive Director
“The group consisting of mother, father, and child is the main educational agency of mankind.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.