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SCOTUS Boots Montana Democrats From the Schoolhouse Door

by Matthew Monforton Read Profile arrow_right_alt

One of the few diamonds extracted by those of us in the 2015 Montana Legislature now glistens in one of the few rays of sunlight emanating from this otherwise dark Supreme Court term.  We enacted a $150 tax credit in 2015 to Montana taxpayers who donate to organizations that award scholarships to families attending private schools, whether secular or religious.

Kendra Espinoza, a single mother working three jobs, was able to enroll her 2 daughters in Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana, because of the scholarship program.  Then Montana Democrats blocked the schoolhouse doors from entry by Christian families such as Espinoza’s.

Gov. Steve Bullock (who is now running for the Senate) could have vetoed the entire scholarship program when we put it on his desk in 2015.  Instead, he allowed the program to become law then, a year later, had the state’s revenue department exclude religious schools from the program.  Thus, Espinoza could participate if she enrolled her daughters in Kalispell Montessori, but not Stillwater Christian School.  Both schools are state-accredited and have good reputations. But one was excluded from the program based solely on religion.

Nothing triggers Democrats more than parents sending their children to private schools – nothing except Christian parents sending their children to Christian schools.

Bullock’s chief legal counsel, Raph Graybill (who is now running for state Attorney General), attempted to cloak the boss’s bigotry with lies.  Montana’s scholarship program, Graybill proclaimed, “places the state’s stamp of approval on some religions over others.”  The enrollment of Espinoza’s daughters in Stillwater Christian, however, placed her stamp of approval on the school’s Evangelical Christianity. It did not place Montana’s stamp of approval on that religion any more than a student using a GI Bill at Notre Dame places the federal government’s stamp of approval on Catholicism.

Politics explain Democrats’ hostility towards faith.  They took notes in 2016 when Montana Supreme Court candidate Dirk Sandefur repeatedly spewed anti-Christian bigotry about his opponent, Kristen Juras, a Christian law professor at the University of Montana.  Sandefur’s attacks were so outrageous that Jim Rice, a sitting state supreme court justice, publicly denounced Sandefur’s appeals to “religious animus.” But Sandefur prevailed, aided by the silence — and cowardice — of Montana’s pastors and Montana’s Republicans.

Montana Democrats believe Sandefur won, not in spite of his appeals to religious animus, but because of them and that such appeals boost turnout of their voters the way appeals to racial animus did with Southern Democrats a century ago.  So they’re advocating Jim Crow for Christians and betting that blocking an Evangelical family from Stillwater’s doors will rally their base the way George Wallace rallied his when he blocked African Americans from the door of the University of Alabama.

Their efforts got a boost from the Montana Supreme Court after Espinoza sued on behalf of her daughters.  That court, which consists of Sandefur and others of his ilk, rejected Espinoza’s pleas for equality.

Earlier today, Justice Neil Gorsuch succinctly summarized that court’s ruling, along with the U.S. Supreme Court rejection of it:

Effectively, the [Montana Supreme] court told the state legislature and parents of Montana like Ms. Espinoza: You can have school choice, but if anyone dares to choose to send a child to an accredited religious school, the program will be shuttered. That condition on a public benefit discriminates against the free exercise of religion.

Montana Democrats had relied upon the Montana Constitution’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibited the state from providing any direct or indirect appropriation for any “sectarian” purpose or to aid any religious school.  That provision has an ugly history, as the U.S. Supreme Court explained:

It was an open secret that ‘sectarian’ was code for ‘Catholic.’ The Blaine Amendment was born of bigotry and arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general; many of its state counterparts have a similarly shameful pedigree. 

Indeed, as Justice Alito noted, the Ku Klux Klan was a prominent supporter of the Blaine Amendment.

Chief Justice John Roberts made clear that, for 5 justices, the Free Exercise Cause of the First Amendment remains “the supreme law of the land” and, as such “condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them. They are members of the community too, and their exclusion from the scholarship program here is odious to our Constitution and cannot stand.”

These heartening words mean that, for now, the bigots have lost and Espinoza’s daughters can once again enter the doors of Stillwater Christian School unimpeded.

But Espinoza’s victory today may prove to be a battle won in a war we can easily lose. Four of the 9 justices on the U.S. Supreme Court were perfectly fine with Montana Democrats discriminating against Espinoza’s daughters based solely upon faith.  The bigots lost today but they’re pining to return to the doors of Stillwater Christian, this time with chains and padlocks.  Absent a firm rebuke of Montana Democrats – and Democrats across the nation – by voters this November, that day will be just around the corner.


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