In a split decision on Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided 5-4 with conservative religious groups over private school funding. A Montana law preventing taxpayer funds from funding private schools was deemed unconstitutional by the majority. In a split-party decision, the court’s four liberal justices dissented, while the five conservative justices ruled in favor of striking the law down.
Chief Justice John Roberts was the deciding vote. Roberts, a conservative appointee to the court, often sides with liberal justices in matters of social change. However, when religious matters are in play, he tends to default to a more conservative view. The decision in the latest of many Supreme Court decisions that have eroded the separation of church and state.
In the majority opinion, the Chief Justice wrote that he felt Montana was being too selective with its tax credit program. The program allowed dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to organizations that donated money to private schools. In essence, this allowed religiously-minded organizations to fund scholarships using state money.
Montana’s supreme court struck this down, saying that the state couldn’t be funding religious education. However, proponents for “school choice” appealed the decision up to the higher courts. “School choice” has been a rallying cry of the Trump Administration, with current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos championing it.
In the majority, Justice Roberts wrote “The no-aid provision penalizes that decision by cutting families off from otherwise available benefits if they choose a religious private school rather than a secular one, and for no other reason”.
In the minority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the dissenting justices found that the no-aid provision was not discrimination. The reasoning for this was that the entire program was shut down. Private schools across the state were simply no longer eligible for the program.
As such, there was no specific discrimination against schools that teach religious material. This meant that, by deeming the strike down unconstitutional, the court was saying that the reasoning of not funding any private schools was unconstitutional.
Separation of Church and State
In recent years, the court has taken a softer view of the First Amendment provision that the government establish no law involving state religion. The Supreme Court has been trending to a more conservative bent over the years on religious matters.
Chief Justice John Roberts himself has been pivotal in that shift. While he occasionally sides with liberal justices, religious matters cause him to default to a conservative stance.