By Andrew L. Seidel
Before walking over to the Senate to preside over Donald Trump’s impeachment, this morning Chief Justice John Roberts presided over one of the most significant cases before the Supreme Court, Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue. Some argue that this is a case about religious discrimination or school choice. It’s not. It’s about religious liberty. True religious liberty.
The case involves a neo-voucher scheme adopted by the Montana legislature. Taxpayers owe taxes to Montana. They are relieved of that obligation if they divert the payment to a scholarship organization that funds private education. It’s a dollar-for-dollar match. One dollar to a scholarship fund is one dollar off your taxes, and 94 percent of these scholarships fund private religious education. Montana appropriated $3 million to cover the anticipated shortfall from forgiving those obligations. The Montana Supreme Court struck down this neo-voucher program because the Montana Constitution says that the state “shall not make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property for any sectarian purpose or [school].” The court ended the entire neo-voucher scheme, for all private education, religious and nonreligious.
Conservative Christian parents want the U.S. Supreme Court to save the program by declaring that they have a right to public funds for their private religious education. If the Supreme Court agrees, it will be overturning a crucial legal principle. Without that principle, states could compel all taxpayers to fund religious worship and religious education. So, yes, this case does threaten religious freedom. Because the right to be free from that compulsion is religious liberty. The right is possessed by every Montana citizen and taxpayer, not just a select segment of Christian parents. That is the right at issue before the Court today.
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