By Emma Green
One of the persistent disappointments of media coverage in the Trump era is how the eye-popping daily headlines about the president obscure slower-moving, equally important developments at all levels of government. This term, the Supreme Court is set to consider cases that could have momentous implications for the future of abortion and LGBTQ rights. It will also hear arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, an important case about state-voucher funding for private religious schools. If the petitioners win, this case could empower activists such as the current secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who want more government money to flow to private education, and who believe states are in serious need of a course correction on the way they view religious schools. But according to their progressive opponents, Espinoza could blur the separation of Church and state, locking taxpayers into funding religious education even when they don’t want to.
While it won’t be as flashy as a presidential declaration on religious liberty, this case’s effects on religious schools and families will likely be far more lasting. Espinoza is the inevitable next step in an important string of Supreme Court decisions about religious discrimination and the U.S. Constitution. The case will add intensity to an already fierce fight about the way religion and politics mix in this country, and whether the imperatives of religious freedom outweigh all other concerns.
The case is named for Kendra Espinoza, a single mother who lives near Kalispell, Montana, who took her two daughters out of public school after one struggled academically and the other faced repeated bullying. She enrolled her girls in a private school, Stillwater Christian, but, like the two other mothers named in the case, Espinoza struggled to pay tuition on her income as an office assistant and night janitor. In 2015, the Montana legislature created a scholarship incentive program to help families send their kids to private schools, religious or secular, which Espinoza says she looked forward to using. Before that could happen, however, the state department of revenue put a rule in place banning the program’s funds from being used at religious schools, saying that would violate Montana’s constitution.
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