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Supreme Court seems favorable to religious education funding

Mark Sherman
Associated Press

Washington – The Supreme Court’s conservative majority appeared ready Wednesday to reinvigorate a Montana scholarship program and make it easier to use public money to pay for religious schooling in many states.

The court was sharply divided along ideological lines in arguments over a provision in Montana’s constitution that bars state aid to religious schools. Montana is among 37 states with similar “no aid” clauses for religious education.

A Supreme Court that seems more favorable to religion-based discrimination claims is set to hear a case that could make it easier to use public money to pay for religious schooling in many states.

Like other conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts questioned a state Supreme Court ruling that struck down a scholarship program for private K-12 education that also makes donors eligible for up to $150 in state tax credits. The scholarships can be used at both secular and religious schools, but almost all the recipients attend religious schools.

Parents who sued to preserve the program, created by the legislature in 2015, argue that the “no-aid” clause in the state constitution violates their religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution. Several conservative justices appeared to agree.

“It’s permissible to discriminate on the basis of religion,” Justice Samuel Alito told the state’s lawyer, Adam Unikowsky. “That’s what you’re saying.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose two daughters attend Catholic schools, referred to the “grotesque religious bigotry” against Catholics 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.

The liberal justices saw the case very differently. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was among those who said that by ending the program for private secular and religious schools alike, the Montana court was treating all parents the same. “So where’s the harm?” Ginsburg asked.

Richard Komer, representing the parents, said that ending the program for everyone was in essence a fig leaf intended to mask discrimination against parents who prefer religious education for their children.

Recent rulings from the Supreme Court, have favored religion-based discrimination claims.