Following a 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday (June 30) in a case involving state funding of religious schools, Baptists focused on religious liberty issues offered divergent assessments. The ruling in the case, Espinoza v. Montana Department Revenue, could open the door for more government funding of religious schools and even houses of worship.
While the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty criticized the ruling, Southern Baptists praised it. The two groups previously split on the case that the majority opinion relies heavily on, the 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer out of Columbia, Missouri. In that case, the justices argued a state no-aid clause that prevents government funding of religion couldn’t be applied to a situation of playground resurfacing. The Espinoza case applies that position to push government funding of more explicitly religious efforts.
BJC, which represents more than a dozen Baptist bodies in advocating for religious liberty for all, previously filed a brief with the Court urging the justices to respect Montanan’s no-aid provision. Their brief was joined by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
After Tuesday’s ruling, Holly Hollman, BJC general counsel, said they were “disappointed that the Court extended its holding in Trinity Lutheran today.”
“The decision’s high concern for equal treatment of religious schools disregards the distinctiveness of religion in our constitutional order and contradicts the special treatment that religion rightfully receives to keep government from influencing and interfering with it,” she explained. “In a shell game that focuses on preventing discrimination based on religious status, the Court fails to recognize Montana’s legitimate interest in protecting religious freedom by avoiding funding religious education.”
“Though religious schools and some parents who choose them in states that have voucher programs will view today’s decision as a win, they may eventually see that it is a pyrrhic victory,” Hollman added. “The more that religious schools are treated just like all other private schools, the harder it is to justify and defend the special accommodations they receive, including in their hiring and firing practices, admission policies, and curriculum choices.”
Offering a different opinion, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention praised the Court’s Espinoza ruling — much as they also cheered the Trinity Lutheran decision. The ERLC previously filed a brief urging the Court to rule Montana discriminated against religious schools. Their brief was joined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Union of Orthodox Synagogues in North America, and the National Association of Evangelicals.
Russell Moore, ERLC president, praised the ruling Tuesday as “the right decision.”
“These scholarships were not a funding of religion, nor an entanglement of the state with the church. The issue here is whether a state-established scholarship program for private schools could discriminate against parents who chose to send their children to private schools that happen to be religious,” he argued. “The Supreme Court should be commended for this decision.”
In his statement, Moore also criticized so-called “Blaine Amendments” for creating “arbitrary and incoherent policies that are needlessly discriminatory.” Some critics of the no-aid clauses use the language of “Blaine Amendments” to allege anti-Catholic bias. However, many states — including the Missouri clause at the center of the Trinity Lutheran decision — actually predated the period of anti-Catholic bigotry and the unsuccessful effort by U.S. Rep. James Blaine to add a no-aid clause to the U.S. Constitution.