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Supreme Court Forces Montana to Fund Religious Schools, Destroying Foundation of Church-State Separation

Washington D.C.—Today, the church-state separation watchdog American Atheists condemned the Supreme Court’s Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue ruling as an attack on the constitutional principle of religious freedom. The 5-4 decision severely limits the no-aid-for-religion clause in Montana’s and 30 other states’ constitutions.

These important state constitutional provisions are intended to protect the separation of religion and government by preventing public funding from paying for religious education. The case was remanded back to the Montana Supreme Court for further proceedings in light of this decision.

“Since the founding of the United States, the central principle of religious freedom has been the separation of religion and government,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists. “The Framers of the Constitution recognized that forcing taxpayers to fund religious activities violates their freedom of conscience, regardless of whether they share the beliefs of that sect.”

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” James Madison expressed the same sentiment in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.

“For all their talk of originalism, the Religious Right activist Justices have erased centuries of legal precedent and undermined a central principle of religious freedom because of their bias in favor of funding Christian schools,” added Gill. “The ripple effects will be disastrous. Religious schools and programs will now have unbridled access to taxpayer dollars, devastating our system of public education.”

Espinoza expands upon Trinity Lutheran (2017), in which the Supreme Court forced Missouri to fund the resurfacing of a church playground, considering the money to be used for a secular purpose. Now, with Espinoza, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot apply constitutional protections that specifically prevent funding for religious schools and organizations, even if they engage in religious activities.

“Religious extremists have eyed no-aid clauses for years, knowing they served as the remaining barrier to redirect taxpayer dollars to religious education,” said Nick Fish. “This is a sad day for public education in America. While our public schools are desperately underfunded and scrambling for resources, it’s unconscionable that the Supreme Court is giving a taxpayer-funded handout to religious schools that are free to discriminate against their students and their staff.”