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Washington – The Supreme Court on Tuesday made it easier for religious schools to obtain public funds, upholding a Montana scholarship program that allows state tax credits for private schooling.

The court’s 5-4 ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts with conservatives in the majority, came in a dispute over a Montana scholarship program for private K-12 education that also makes donors eligible for up to $150 in state tax credits.

The Legislature created the tax credit in 2015 for contributions made to specific scholarship programs for private education. The state’s highest court had struck down the tax credit as a violation of the Montana constitution’s ban on state aid to religious schools. The scholarships can be used at both secular and religious schools, but almost all the recipients attend religious schools.

Roberts’ opinion said the state ruling violates the religious freedom of parents who want the scholarships to help pay for their children’s private education. “A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a dissent described the high-court ruling as “perverse.”

“Without any need or power to do so, the Court appears to require a State to reinstate a tax-credit program that the Constitution did not demand in the first place.”

Parents whose children attend religious schools sued to preserve the program.

Roughly three-dozen states have similar no-aid provisions in their constitutions. Courts in some states have relied on those provisions to strike down religious-school funding.

Advocates for allowing state money to be used in private schooling said the court recognized in its decision that parents should not be penalized for sending their kids to schools that are a better fit than public schools.

“This opinion will pave the way for more states to pass school choice programs that allow parents to choose a school that best meets their child’s individual needs, regardless of whether those schools are religious or nonreligious,” said Erica Smith, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represented the parents in their court fight.

But the president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which counts more than 12,000 teachers and other school workers as union members, called the decision “a slap in the face” to its members and the communities they serve.

In a separate opinion, Justice Samuel Alito pointed to evidence of anti-Catholic bigotry that he said motivated the original adoption of the Montana provision and others like it in the 1800s, although Montana’s constitution was redone in 1972 with the provision intact. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose two daughters attend Catholic schools, made a similar point during arguments in January when he talked about the “grotesque religious bigotry” against Catholics that underlay the amendment.

Michigan is among 37 states that have provisions in their state constitutions that bar religious schools from receiving state aid.

Michigan’s so-called Blaine Amendment, passed by voters in 1970 as “Proposal C,” prevents public dollars from going to non-public schools.

In April 2018, two state laws that reimbursed private schools for the cost of fire drills, inspections and other state requirements were struck down by Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, who said they violated the state constitution’s ban regarding direct or indirect aid to non-public schools.

But in October of that year, a Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 that using state funds to reimburse private schools for complying with health and safety laws is not inherently unconstitutional.

Detroit News staff contributed.

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