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The case surrounding three low-income mothers who sued after the State of Montana ended a scholarship program because parents were choosing to use the funds for tuition at religious schools led Supreme Court justices hearing oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue to focus on discrimination based on one’s faith.
At issue in the case is 2015 legislation enacted by Montana lawmakers to give taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions up to $150 to a student scholarship organization.
Contributions - Scholarship - Fund - School - State
Although the contributions were made to a scholarship fund and not to a specific school, the state was faced with questions about whether money used for tuition to religious schools violated the state’s prohibition on using public funds for any church-affiliated organization.
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Montana - Department - Revenue - Scholarship - Program
The Montana Department of Revenue, which implemented the scholarship program, decided to adopt an administrative rule to exclude religious schools as a “qualified education provider.”
When the suit reached the Montana Supreme Court, it ruled, in part, that including religious schools was not “severable” from the rest of the scholarship program and invalidated it entirely, with the exception of some final scholarship awards in the summer of 2019.
Attorneys - Plaintiffs - US - Government - Behalf
The attorneys arguing for the plaintiffs, including the U.S. government, and on behalf of the state of Montana, faced tough questions from almost all of the justices, including this exchange between Adam G. Unikowsky, attorney for Montana, and Justice Stephen Breyer:
“The state says: We will pay for the salaries of priests if they’re Mohammedan but not if they’re Buddhist. Unconstitutional, right?” Breyer asked.
“Yeah,” Unikowsky answered.
“Okay. So why doesn’t it also violate the Constitution were the state to say we won’t pay the salaries of any priests but we will pay the head of every other organization? Breyer said.
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