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FFRF, others file brief in religious liberty case

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FFRF is weighing in on the most important state/church case — concerning governmental funding of religious education — before the U.S. Supreme Court this term.

In its concise 18-page friend-of-the-court brief filed in November, FFRF, joined by other secular groups, cogently argues that true religious liberty would be imperiled if the court strikes down a provision of Montana’s Constitution that prohibits official funding of religious education. “If this court . . . invents a constitutional right for religion to dip into the public purse, state-church relations will be altered drastically,” FFRF warns.

The case involves a neo-voucher law passed by the Montana Legislature to provide a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, up to $150, for donors supporting scholarships for private schools. Nearly 90 percent of Montana’s private schools promote a religion. The Montana Department of Revenue, invoking Montana’s constitutional prohibition on funding religion, later issued an administrative rule restricting tax credit eligibility for scholarships to nonreligious private schools. Three Christian parents, represented by the pro-voucher Institute for Justice, sued. The Montana Supreme Court in late 2018 ruled against the parents, invalidating the entire tax credit scholarship program and ruling that the “no aid” provision in the state constitution disallows direct or indirect payments for sectarian education.

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Christian parent plaintiffs are claiming they have a right, under the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment, to raid state money to send students to Christian schools. FFRF’s brief argues that the plaintiffs have it backward: “Religious liberty is imperiled in this case. But this case is not about discrimination; it is about government-compelled support of religion. Every Montana citizen has the right to not be taxed to fund religion.” The brief also asserts, “Religious freedom means that no citizen can be compelled to subsidize a religion that is not their own. If this court abandons this basic principle, we will have reached a disastrous moment in American history: the era of government-compelled tithing.”