Some Thoughts on the Espinoza Argument

Here’s a brief comment about Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Revenue, the Blaine Amendment case that the Court has under consideration. The Court heard oral argument in the case last week. It’s always tricky predicting the outcome of a case based on oral argument. But it seems pretty clear, at least to me, the the Court will ultimately rule in favor of the petitioners.

Followers of this blog know the facts of the case. (You do subscribe to Legal Spirits, right?) Briefly, the case concerns the constitutionality of a Montana school-choice program that allows parents to direct state-funded scholarships to religiously affiliated schools. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the program violated the state constitution’s “Blaine Amendment,” which prohibits the appropriation of public money for “sectarian” institutions, including private, religiously affiliated schools, and canceled the scholarship program in its entirety. Petitioners argue that excluding them from otherwise available scholarship funds, simply because they planned to use the funds at a religiously affiliated school, violates the federal Free Exercise Clause.

Based on the Justices’ interventions, the Court seems likely to rule that, in these circumstances, barring parents from using public funds to pay tuition at religiously affiliated schools is unconstitutional. The Court’s cases point to that outcome. Zelman holds that the Establishment Clause isn’t violated when public money reaches religiously affiliated schools “wholly as a result” of parents’ “genuine and independent choice.” Trinity Lutheran Church holds that a state cannot deny a school access to public financial assistance simply because the school has a religious character. When you put these two cases together, it seems to me, the petitioners prevail.

That’s not to say their victory will be sweeping. For one thing, the Court seems likely to limit its holding to the facts of this case and avoid a ruling on the constitutionality of Blaine Amendments more generally. Moreover, the four progressive Justices signaled their strong disagreement with the petitioners’ Free Exercise argument.

Interestingly, two of the progressive Justices, Kagan and Breyer, who joined the Court in Trinity Lutheran Church, indicated that they see this case as quite different. Trinity Lutheran Church involved state funds specifically for playground refurbishment–a use unrelated to the religious character of the school in question. Espinoza, by contrast, involves unrestricted funds, which a school presumably could direct towards religious education. There is a case that suggests a state may refuse to allow its tax money to be spent for those purposes. But that case, Locke v. Davey, involved tax money for clergy training, not for general education at an accredited, religiously affiliated school–a distinction that will probably persuade the Court’s conservatives that Locke doesn’t apply here.

In short, oral argument suggests another of those familiar, narrow, 5 to 4, Religion Clause decisions. If that’s the case, Espinoza will be an important victory for school choice advocates–though not as sweeping as they might have hoped. Stay tuned.

2 responses

  1. Prof. Movesian, your comments would make perfectly good sense if the Montana court had upheld the aid-to-private-schools program, but excluded religious private schools from receiving aid, but that is not what happened. Rather, the court struck down the entire program. As a result, there is no religious discrimination here–unless you are going to argue that having public schools but no public aid to private schools of any sort constitutes religious discrimination. That may be your position, but if so, it is certainly an extreme position that the Court has never come close to espousing. Ellis West

  2. Professor West: Thanks for your comment. That’s not my position. Of course, Montana could decide not to fund any private schools. But that’s not what happened here. The Montana court invalidated the entire program because the state could not assure that no monies would go to religiously affiliated schools on an equal basis with non-religiously affiliated schools. One could say, in other words, that the Montana court invalidated the entire program in order to effectuate a free-exercise violation. That other parents, who do not wish to send their kids to religiously affiliated schools, also suffered does not ameliorate the damage to the rights of parents who did want to send their kids to religiously affiliated schools. Mark Movsesian

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