HELENA — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down Monday says a church in Missouri is eligible to receive state dollars to resurface its playground, which some believe may be the first step toward undoing bans on the use of public money by religious institutions in Montana and other states.
The ruling was celebrated by school choice advocates across the country, who see it as vindication of ongoing arguments that religious schools should be able to receive state funding like other private institutions through vouchers and similar programs. However, it remains uncertain if the court’s decision will have wide ramifications, especially in Montana where one school choice case is in the process of being appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.
When Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri applied for a state reimbursement program to resurface its playground, the Department of Natural Resources denied its application. Missouri is one of approximately three dozen states with a constitutional ban on spending state money on any religious institution. But the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state could not exclude a church from participating in state programs with a secular intent, such as using funds to improve safety on a playground.
It’s unclear if the decision will make it harder for states to enforce their bans without being accused of discriminating against people who are religious. A footnote from Justice John G. Roberts could also indicate that the decision doesn’t have a broad application. He wrote, “this case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
Montana is one of the states with a ban on giving public money to religious institutions. Even before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the constitutional provision faced a challenge.
A bill passed by the Montana Legislature in 2015 allows people to receive a maximum $150 tax credit for donating money to student scholarship organizations, which are designated for students attending private schools. The legislation says scholarships can go to any “qualified education provider” but the Department of Revenue said a school with a religious affiliation doesn’t fit that category.
Parents at Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell sued the Department of Revenue, saying the rule was discriminatory. Last month, District Judge Heidi Ulbricht of Kalispell ruled in their favor, saying tax credits to people donating scholarship funds for religious schools are not an appropriation of state money and are therefore allowed.
Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, said the organization is thrilled with the Supreme Court’s decision. The group has advocated for the tax credit program and other measures to increase school choice.
“Our side is ecstatic with the results,” Laszloffy said. “We think it bodes well for choice in education going forward.”
While Laszloffy acknowledged the footnote from Roberts could mean the court intended for the decision to be narrow, he said the remaining justices could feel differently.
“It’s hard to know what all the other justices are thinking,” he said.
Laszloffy said he thinks the tax credit case will be upheld at some level.
“The state Supreme Court would have to do judicial gymnastics to try and get around language that’s so clear,” he said. “We may lose it at the state level. I would be absolutely shocked if we lose this case at the federal level.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Revenue said they’ll appeal the district judge's ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, but were still reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and had not yet determined whether it would impact their case.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a statement in support of the decision on Monday.
"This decision marks a great day for the Constitution and sends a clear message that religious discrimination in any form cannot be tolerated in a society that values the First Amendment," she said in a statement. "We should all celebrate the fact that programs designed to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on religious affiliation."
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is reviewing the ruling with her office's legal counsel to determine if any policies need to be updated, a spokesperson said.