Supreme Court to review Montana school choice program

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court will consider reviving a Montana program that gives tax credits to people who donate to private-school scholarships. The state’s highest court had struck down the program because it violated the Montana constitution’s ban on state aid to religious organizations.

The justices say Friday that they will review the state court ruling, which Montana parents are challenging as a violation of their religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the program giving tax credits of up to $150 for donations to organizations that give scholarships to private-school students amounts to indirect aid to schools controlled by churches.

The Republican-led Legislature passed the law in 2015 as an alternative to a school voucher program designed to give students who want to attend private schools the means to do so. Most private schools in Montana have religious affiliations, and more than 90 percent of the private schools that have signed up with scholarship organizations under the program are religious.

The state court ruling invalidated the entire program, for religious and secular schools alike. In urging the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, Montana said it can’t be compelled to offer a scholarship program for private education. The state told the justices that the Montana court decision did not single out students at religious schools because the state court ruling struck down the entire program.

Montana is one of 18 states that offer scholarship tax-credit programs, according to EdChoice, an organization that promotes school-choice programs. Tax credits are one of several ways states have created programs to boost private schools or defray their tuition costs, with others including vouchers, individual tax credits or deductions and education savings accounts.

The Montana plaintiffs are represented by Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which specializes in school-choice cases. Erica Smith, an attorney for the group, said this will be the first time the Supreme Court considers the question of whether a government can exclude religious schools from a student-aid program that is otherwise publicly available to everybody.

“If the court rules in our favor, it would help tens of thousands of families across the country get a better education,” Smith said. “Every family should be able to guide children’s education, regardless of income. That’s what school choice is all about.”

Montana Department of Revenue spokesman Sanjay Talwani said the state Supreme Court correctly concluded that the Montana Constitution prevents public funding of private religious schools. The state agency wrote the rule that excluded religious schools from benefiting from the tax-credit program after lawmakers passed the bill in 2015.

“The state of Montana is ready to defend its case before the United States Supreme Court to protect Montana’s Constitution,” Talwani said in a statement.

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