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Supreme Court Rules Montana Religious Schools Can Receive Funding

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A major victory for advocates of government funding for religious education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a law in Montana. That state law let students apply for state scholarships, which they could not use at religious schools. The court struck down that exclusion. Joining us now to discuss the 5-4 decision is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, good morning.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's first talk about this in the context of Montana. What was this case about?

TOTENBERG: Well, the focal point of the decision was a Montana Supreme Court decision that struck down a tax subsidy for both religious and nonreligious private schools. The Montana Supreme Court said that the subsidy violated a state constitutional provision barring any state aid to religious schools, whether direct or indirect. And then what it did was it said, look; we can't have private schools being - treat religious schools differently than nonreligious schools. So it struck down the state aid - tax aid provision entirely. The parents...

INSKEEP: OK, I - go ahead, please.

TOTENBERG: The parents of children at religious schools then went to the Supreme Court and said, look; this whole thing violates our rights. And today, the U.S. Supreme Court, with Chief Justice Roberts and in a 5-4 opinion, agreed. And what he said was the state need not subsidize private education. But once it does decide to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.

INSKEEP: OK, I think you've corrected me here on the introduction. We're hearing that the Montana law allowed subsidies of religious education, then the state Supreme Court disallowed those subsidies, and now the Supreme Court has allowed those subsidies of religious education in Montana. It may take a while to get a sense of the broad implications of this decision, which just came out, but can we talk about how big an issue this has been before the court over the years? How much have they focused on these issues of religious freedom and also the separation of church and state?

TOTENBERG: You know, for a long time, for decades and decades and decades, the Supreme Court erected a high wall of separation between church and state. And it has been taking down that wall of separation considerably in the last 10, 15 years. And now that there's a conservative majority on the court, that has taken off. And instead, the court is focusing on the other part of the First Amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion, and that's what it did in today's case. And this is a huge victory for the school choice movement. There are 38 states that have constitutional provisions that more fiercely protect the wall of separation between church and state than the federal Constitution does. And today, the U.S. Supreme Court has basically put those in doubt and said, no, you got to follow us, not the other way around.

INSKEEP: Oh, 38 states might have to...

TOTENBERG: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Start looking at changes to their constitutions because of this kind of...

TOTENBERG: Or at least how they carry them out, yep.

INSKEEP: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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