Espinoza and two other mothers, with the Institute for Justice as counsel, joined in a lawsuit challenging the ruling in a state court. That court essentially ruled in the mothers’ favor. The Montana Department of Revenue then appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s decision and found that the state constitution barred scholarships for attendees of religious schools and, furthermore, invalidated the whole program. Espinoza appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court now finds in a 5-4 decision — with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion along with Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh — that the Montana Supreme Court’s invalidation of the Montana scholarship tax credit/scholarship program was unconstitutional. When first instituted, the legislation allowed parents to use scholarship grants for tuition payments to religious schools. Withdrawing that opportunity violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, wrote Roberts.
The chief justice used language from an earlier case — Trinity Lutheran — to maintain that the free exercise clause of the Constitution “protects religious observers against unequal treatment.” That same clause, continued Roberts, makes unconstitutional any “laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status.” The Trinity case had been decided three years earlier and involved a refusal by the state of Missouri to provide a state grant to resurface the Trinity Lutheran School’s playground, while offering grants to secular schools. Court watchers were not certain how widely the holding in that case would be applied. The court has given its answer. What it saw happening in the Montana case was that in order to qualify for aid under the Montana constitution, “a school must divorce itself from any religious control or affiliation. Placing such a condition on benefits or privileges inevitably deters or discourages the exercise of First Amendment rights.”