Legal Spirits Episode 019: Oral Argument in the Blaine Amendments Case

Late last month, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Revenue, a case on 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. Petitioners argue that barring them from scholarships, simply because they plan to use the money at religiously affiliated schools, violates the Free Exercise Clause of the federal constitution.

In this episode, we review the facts of Espinoza and analyze last month’s oral argument. What concerns did the Justices raise and how did counsel respond? We also speculate what the Justices’ questions suggest about the ultimate outcome of the case. Listen in!

Movsesian on Espinoza

Over at Public Discourse today, I have an essay that attempts to predict the outcome in Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Revenue, the Blaine Amendment case currently under review at SCOTUS. (Marc and I will have a new podcast about the case up shortly). Here’s a summary of the essay:

The US Supreme Court seems likely to rule in a way school-choice advocates will welcome. The Court will likely overrule the Montana court and hold a ban on scholarships for students at religiously affiliated schools unconstitutional—an important ruling, to be sure. But a sweeping opinion seems unlikely. Rather, Espinoza is shaping up to be one of those closely divided, narrow decisions that have become familiar in the Court’s Religion Clause jurisprudence.

Predicting the outcome of a case on the basis of oral argument is tricky, but I’m foolhardy enough to try. Let’s see how I do.

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.

Around the Web

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Legal Spirits Episode 015: SCOTUS Grants Cert in the Louisiana Abortion Case

Photo: CNN

In this podcast, we discuss the Supreme Court’s decision to grant cert in June Medical Services v. Gee, a constitutional challenge to a Louisiana law regulating abortion. We explore what the decision to hear the case suggests about the Court’s changing dynamics and ask whether the standing issue the case presents offers the Court’s conservatives, especially Chief Justice Roberts, a way to cut back on the right to abortion without actually overruling Roe and Casey. Listen in!

Center Hosts Conversation on Church and State at SCOTUS

L-R: Marc DeGirolami, Kyle Duncan, Richard Sullivan, Mark Movsesian

Last week, the Center hosted a conversation on church-and-state issues before the US Supreme Court with federal appeals court judges Kyle Duncan (5th Circuit) and Richard Sullivan (2nd Circuit). The two newly-appointed judges discussed legislative prayer; public religious displays; the conflict between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom; and state aid to religious schools. Here’s a write-up of the event from the Law School webpage.

A New Book by Justice Gorsuch

Here at the Forum, we’ve been following with interest Justice Neil Gorsuch’s developing religion clause jurisprudence, in cases like Trinity Lutheran, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and American Legion. This week, Penguin Random House releases a new collection of essays and other short pieces by the Justice, A Republic, If You Can Keep It, exploring his views on the Constitution and its principles. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Justice Neil Gorsuch reflects on his journey to the Supreme Court, the role of the judge under our Constitution, and the vital responsibility of each American to keep our republic strong.
 
As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, he was reportedly asked what kind of government the founders would propose. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” In this book, Justice Neil Gorsuch shares personal reflections, speeches, and essays that focus on the remarkable gift the framers left us in the Constitution.

Justice Gorsuch draws on his thirty-year career as a lawyer, teacher, judge, and justice to explore essential aspects our Constitution, its separation of powers, and the liberties it is designed to protect. He discusses the role of the judge in our constitutional order, and why he believes that originalism and textualism are the surest guides to interpreting our nation’s founding documents and protecting our freedoms. He explains, too, the importance of affordable access to the courts in realizing the promise of equal justice under law—while highlighting some of the challenges we face on this front today.
 
Along the way, Justice Gorsuch reveals some of the events that have shaped his life and outlook, from his upbringing in Colorado to his Supreme Court confirmation process. And he emphasizes the pivotal roles of civic education, civil discourse, and mutual respect in maintaining a healthy republic.
 
A Republic, If You Can Keep It offers compelling insights into Justice Gorsuch’s faith in America and its founding documents, his thoughts on our Constitution’s design and the judge’s place within it, and his beliefs about the responsibility each of us shares to sustain our distinctive republic of, by, and for “We the People.”





Movsesian at The King’s College Next Month

Next month, I’ll give the annual Constitution Day Address at The King’s College in New York, on Masterpiece Cakeshop and the future of religious freedom in the United States. Details about the event, to take place on September 19, are here. Forum readers in New York, please stop by to say hello!

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