These scenarios are antithetical to the principles of religious freedom on which our nation was founded. And yet, this is the path we may be headed down as the U.S. Supreme Court gears up to hear oral arguments Wednesday in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
The case arises out of a challenge to a Montana private-school voucher program. Because the Montana Constitution — like three-quarters of the states’ constitutions — specifically prohibits state dollars from funding religious education, the state limited its voucher program to secular schools. But some parents argued that if Montana funds private education at all, it must fund religious education. The Montana Supreme Court struck down the entire voucher program, resulting in all private schools being treated the same way: None of them get taxpayer dollars.
Now, however, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide whether Montana’s earlier decision to fund some secular schools means that it must also fund religious schools — schools that teach religion, compel students to engage in religious activities and enforce religious codes of conduct. This case is not about what a state may do, but about what it must do. To hold that the U.S. Constitution requires taxpayers to fund religious education in this fashion would upset long-standing principles of religious freedom and separation of religion and government.
No taxpayer should be forced to fund religious education. This bedrock principle alone should convince you — and the court — to leave Montana’s constitution undisturbed. But if that’s not enough, consider the fact that a ruling in favor of the voucher program would also compel taxpayers to fund discrimination, religious and otherwise.
Private religious schools don’t adhere to the same nondiscrimination laws that public schools do. As a result, we have seen them turn students away because their families don’t share the school’s religious beliefs. They have barred admission because a student or parent is LGBTQ or a student has a disability. They have expelled students who engage in sex outside marriage. And some have fired teachers for being pregnant and unmarried, for undergoing in vitro fertilization or for advocating for the right to terminate a pregnancy. While not all private religious schools conduct themselves in this way, too many do, and taxpayers should not have to underwrite such discrimination.
Consider also that whatever the Supreme Court decides in the school-voucher arena may well reverberate in other contexts, opening the door to countless new avenues of taxpayer funding of both religion and discrimination. For example, would the government then be forced to fund Sunday school classes at a house of worship if it is funding a museum’s youth education program? If taxpayer dollars are paying for secular social service programs such as substance-abuse counseling or job-training programs, would they now have to pay for similar programs that require Jewish participants to practice Christianity?
Some claim that not funding private religious education when private secular education is funded amounts to religious discrimination. They have it backward. Prohibiting government funding of religion protects religious freedom. Religious institutions that accept government money open themselves up to government interference, risk internal divisions and jeopardize their ability to be self-supporting in the future. A diverse array of religions have been able to thrive in America because of — not despite — the separation of religion and government.
Those challenging the Montana Constitution are not seeking a level playing field. Instead, they are asking the state to fund their religious schools and continue to extend to them exemptions from laws that apply to public and even secular private schools. That is not equal treatment — it’s religious privilege.