by Joseph Backholm
July 10, 2020
The Supreme Court had some misses this term, but not when it comes to religious schools. Two decisions in the past two weeks have greatly improved the landscape for religious education, including Christian education.
In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Court said religious schools cannot be excluded from that state’s private school tax-credit program. Previously, the Montana Supreme Court, citing a state constitutional provision known as a Blaine Amendment, said that religious schools could not be the beneficiaries of a public tax benefit—because they are religious. However, the U.S. Supreme Court said that provisions excluding religious schools solely because they are religious violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
In doing so, the Court again emphasized that the Constitution does not require government and religion to remain disconnected in every respect, only that government treat every religious organization and faith similarly.
The impact of this decision is significant. Currently, 37 states have language similar to Montana’s anti-aid Blaine Amendment. But 26 states have school choice programs in the form of vouchers, tax credits, or education savings accounts. Until last week, parents in most of the 26 state school choice programs were prohibited from using them to attend a Christian school. No longer.
In addition to expanding opportunities for school programs that already exist, parents and churches in states with no school choice laws now have reasons to start that conversation in their state legislature. Not only does this expand options for parents, it provides opportunities for churches to start new schools.
In the second piece of good news, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of religious schools to make employment decisions free of government intrusion. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, former teachers had sued two religious schools claiming that they had been discriminated against when they were released from their jobs. The Court held that the First Amendment prohibited the Court from even hearing the teachers’ claims. Why? Because if a court were to regulate how religious organizations hired and fired, it would effectively be determining how a religious organization is run.
In a 7-2 decision, the Court said such oversight was outside their constitutional jurisdiction. Specifically, they said that these teachers fell under a “ministerial exception” to non-discrimination laws which had previously been used to protect a church’s right to hire and fire ministers.
As a result of this decision, religious schools may develop a new habit of describing Christian educators as ministers in their employment documents. Regardless, the Supreme Court has again recognized the right of religious organizations to be religious, free from the demands of a swiftly moving cultural tide.
Providentially, at a moment where the need for cultural renewal has never been greater, the opportunity for Christian education has never been better.
Joseph Backholm is Senior Fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at Family Research Council.