High court sparks new battle over church-state separation

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The Supreme Court elated religious freedom advocates and alarmed secular groups with its Tuesday ruling on public funding for religious education, a decision whose long-term effect on the separation of church and state remains to be seen.

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the high court ruled 5-4 that states must give religious schools the same access to public funding that other private schools receive, preserving a Montana scholarship program that had largely benefited students at religious institutions.

It prompted a jubilant reaction from the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump, who counts religious conservatives as a core part of his base. The campaign lauded the decision as “a victory for educational freedom,” underscoring its importance for a White House that often spotlights religious liberty.

Sister Dale McDonald, public policy director for the National Catholic Educational Association, said the ruling has the potential to stem nationwide enrollment declines at Roman Catholic schools that are forcing the closure of hundreds of institutions.

“This is a chance to get public schools and religious schools on equal footing,” McDonald said, adding that the extent of change would depend on how many state legislatures opt to expand tuition assistance.

Critics assailed the decision as another in a series of setbacks for a principle with long roots in the U.S. legal system.

It is "the latest in a disturbing line of Supreme Court cases attacking the very foundations of the separation of church and state,” said Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s freedom of religion program.

Tuesday’s ruling focused on a program that offered indirect tuition assistance through tax credits rather than direct state aid to religious schools. The court left unresolved the extent to which religious schools may use public funding for explicitly religious activities, such as worship services and religious-education courses. Mach said that issue likely would be the focus of future litigation, given that many religious schools consider doctrinal education to be at the core of their mission.