Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in an important religious freedom case, Espinoza v. Montana. At the heart of this case is whether or not parents can choose to send their children to the school that is best for them, even if that school happens to be a religiously affiliated one.
While the case concerns the state of Montana, the court's decision could affect the laws in 36 other states. These states, along with Montana, have something called a Blaine Amendment, named after James Blaine, a U.S. congressman in the 1860s and 70s who wanted to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit religious schools from receiving government aid. While the amendment passed the House it failed in the Senate. However, some states added it to their own constitutions, Montana among them.
Congressman Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the student plaintiffs in Espinoza v. Montana, joined me on Washington Watch yesterday. We discussed how the Blaine Amendment not only infringes on our constitutional right to religious freedom but also disadvantages students, particularly those from low-income families, who may want to use government-funded scholarships to attend a religiously affiliated school.
Gianforte explained that the Blaine Amendment originated with an anti-Catholic sentiment that was incompatible with the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment. He said, "We have to remember what the First Amendment is all about. It's freedom of religion, not freedom from religion." He continued, "What the other side is arguing is that they have a right to be free from religion in all sectors. And that's not what [the U.S.] Constitution says."
This alleged "freedom from religion" is hindering children's academic opportunities and parents' ability to choose a school that is right for them. Gianforte, who has a long history of supporting educational choice in Montana, said it was his own experience as a father of four that spurred his interest in school choice. He explained, "Each child is created differently, and a one size fits all approach just doesn't help each child reach their full potential. That's why I believe parents know what's best for their kids, and they ought to be able to pick the education that best fits their child." Gianforte said that lack of school choice disproportionately disadvantages low-income students. When trapped in a school ill-suited to their needs, and unable to afford tuition to a different school, many of these students drop out: "[I]n Montana, 78 percent of the high school dropouts come from lower-income families. So the lack of choice is a disadvantage. And if we're ever going to break the cycle of poverty, without a high school diploma, it's just really hard to succeed in life." Gianforte pointed to the success of the privately funded ACE Scholarships, which he founded. ACE has enabled low-income students to attend schools they otherwise would not have been able to afford.
Government-funded private education is not a constitutional right. But if government-funded scholarships are made available, students should have the right to use the scholarship towards tuition at a school of their own choosing, be it secular or religious.
The Blaine Amendment's hostility towards religion is an unnecessary and unconstitutional obstacle to children having a better education and reaching their God-given potential. The U.S. Supreme Court should recognize this fact and declare the Blaine Amendment unconstitutional.