The Montana Supreme Court heard oral arguments, early this month, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a critical school choice case affecting families across Montana.
In 2015, the Montana Department of Revenue (MDOR) issued a rule barring faith-based private schools from participating in Montana’s statewide scholarship tax credit program. The rule was subsequently challenged by several Montana families who argued that it violated constitutional religious protections by preventing them from selecting a large number of Montana private schools simply because those schools are religious.
MDOR argues that the rule is required under the Montana Constitution’s No-Aid clause, which is commonly known as a “Blaine Amendment.” These provisions prohibit states from providing aid to “sectarian” causes or religious entities in more than three dozen states. They have been the subject of frequent debate nationwide due to their roots in a history of discrimination against and suppression of religious minorities.
ACE Scholarships does not currently participate in Montana’s scholarship tax credit program. However, it is the largest nonprofit scholarship-granting organization in the state with nearly 750 scholars attending 58 private schools representing diverse religious affiliations, philosophical backgrounds, and educational models. ACE works exclusively with economically disadvantaged families.
“Each child has such different needs socially, spiritually, scholastically, and emotionally,” said Laurie Houde, the parent of four ACE students in Billings. “School choice puts power in the hands of parents to direct their children’s upbringing in accordance with their needs and beliefs. The state shouldn’t stand in the way of those decisions.”
The plaintiffs in Espinoza send their children to Stillwater Christian School, an ACE partner in Montana. Jeremy Marsh, Stillwater Christian’s assistant head of school, said that the school “proudly supports our three parents who have taken a stand against the Montana Department of Revenue’s incorrect interpretation of the Montana and United States Constitutions.”
The Montana Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue later this year.