Should a Gov't Scholarship Program Exclude Religious Schools?

This mom is fighting to send her daughters to the school of her choice.


When Montana created a school scholarship program in May 2015, it seemed like a dream come true for parents like Kendra Espinoza, a single mom living in Kalispell with limited means.

"I didn't have a lot of opportunity growing up […] And so, I want to give that [to] my kids," says Espinoza, who sends who two daughters to Stillwater Christian Academy, a private religious school a short drive from their house.

But Espinoza ran into a problem.

Although the scholarhship program is funded by voluntary donors who recieved tax credits and was supported by the Montana legislature, the Montana Department of Revenue passed a ruling December 15, 2015, denying money to kids who attended religious schools. From the Montana Billings Gazette:

Unfortunately, Gov. Steve Bullock's Department of Revenue threw a monkey wrench in the works. Claiming that the tax credits were the same thing as government spending, they argued that the bill was an unconstitutional appropriation of public dollars to religious schools. They then passed rules barring any religious schools from participating. That's more than 95 percent of the private schools in the state.

"I think every parent has that right to be able to say, 'I want my kids to be able to go to this school or that school,'" says Espinoza, who has since joined a lawsuit along with two other mothers through the Institute for Justice. For more on the case watch, "Montana Families Are Fighting for School Choice."


NEXT: Watch: Reason's Nick Gillespie & Lisa Snell Call Bullsh*t on Public Education Abuses

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  1. You can use Pell grants for tuition at sectarian postsecondary institutions. Why does the name of the game change when it’s K-12?

    1. Pell grants are a federal program.

      1. Does Montana’s state constitution include a clause that is more restrictive than the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause? It’s quite possible as that was the case here in NH.

      2. Regardless of state/federal issues. The fact is that Pell grants are considered entitlements, the use of which traditionally hasn’t been seen as “government spending”. For example, the use of Medicare for sectarian hospitals, as far as I know, hasn’t come under any challenges. Applying this logic to Bullock’s argument, it seems tyrannical to consider tax credits (i.e., money that Montana, in her munificence, allows you to keep) to be government spending. It seems to me that the Montana state government is claiming, for lack of a better phrase, some sort of eminent domain over the savings of her citizens. That is, if one spends money that could be taxable, then that money could be seen as government spending, and as such is subject to the prohibitions set up by the constitution for state government spending.

        1. The scholarships go to the children who are under the protection of their parents. The parents get to decide on the education, not the state. Pierce vs The Society of Sisters pretty much established that parents get to decide to which school their children can go. Once the scholarship money is under the control of the parents, the state is out of the picture.

          If you receive a tax credit for installing solar panels on your roof does that mean that you can’t home school your child if your curriculum includes religious subjects? Can you pray under your own roof? Or is that a state endorsement of religion?

          Since publicly financed roads are used by people to send their children to religious schools does that mean that the state can now forbid people to travel to churches on public roads?

          Where does this kind of idiocy end?

          Who is so stupid that they can’t see the kind of power this puts in the hands of bureaucrats? How long before tax cuts will not be available to anyone guilty of non-PC speech?

          1. “Where does this kind of idiocy end?”
            When the the state, local and federal governments collectively spend all of the tax money they collect on religious schools AND ONLY RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS. NO TAX RECEIPTS GO TO ANYTHING ELSE. SCREW the roads. SCREW the public parks and wildlife refuges! SCREW NASA! Don’t even fund the military! This will ensure a fair and level playing field for citizens of all sects.
            I am sure as a Sun Worshiper I will be getting something out of this.

            1. Where does the idiocy end? I think the idiocy ends here:

              Resistance is senseless and futile, my friends. Now that it is established FACT that “The government loves your kids more than you do”, that ship has sailed long ago. Time to get used to it?
              You know how frogs and toads and sea turtles lay a batch of eggs and then abandon them to let Nature take its course? So, too, do we need to learn to drop our newborn babies off to the tender loving care of the Government Almighty, who Loves Them more than we ever can? And go, and never look back. If that is contrary to our instincts, if that thought or act tears at Mom and Dad’s tender feelings, then we need to start looking into genetic human-behavior modifications, PRONTO! What frog, turtle, or insect, spider, etc., genes might best and most easily be spliced into the human genome, to take care of these mal-adaptive, instinctive “feelings” of ours?

              PS, while we are at it, might as well do it right? All is for the Hive, and only the genes of the Emperor and Empress deserve to be passed on? For those behavioral genes to be spliced into our genomes, look no further that ants, bees, wasps, etc. (AKA the Socialist and Communist insects), and the naked mole rats, as well. MARCH ON into our brave new future, comrades!

              1. This has been true now for at LEAST 50 years? From FDR’s “New Deal” on, at least, so say 80 years or more?
                I have a friend, he’s a primary-materials (original materials) historian; none of you would know him (specializes in a small, very conservative religious group’s history).
                His Q: How long (even among way-conservative pepples) until “we’ve always done things that way”?
                His A: About 50 years?
                Frightening though with respect to Government Almighty?

                1. How DARE ye think you should be able to chose where yer offspring go to get edumacated?!?! The Social Servants have DEGREES and CREDENTIALS in just HOW to love yer kids, and YE do NOT!!! Bend over and TAKE it! Get 51% of the voters to agree to it, and the Vaseline required to do so, MIGHT get to be written off on your taxes…

      3. What does Pell being a federal program have to do with it? If the federal government gives grants for students to attend religious colleges and it doesn’t run afoul of the establishment clause, how does the state giving grants for students attending K-12 schools run afoul of the establishment clause?

        1. how does the state giving grants for students attending K-12 schools run afoul of the establishment clause?

          As I mentioned above, many state constitutions have establishment clauses of their own, many of which are more restrictive. Some state constitutions explicitly prohibit state funding of religious schools (You can blame the waves of filthy Papist immigrants for that one).

        2. Which establishment clause? If you’re referring to the U.S. Constitution then it wouldn’t run afoul of it, but what does that have to do with this case? This case is about Montana’s establishment clause.

      4. And? If the argument is that govt money cannot be used toward tuition at religious schools, the level of govt is immaterial.

        1. I don’t think you understand basics about the establishment clause and/or how our republic works. The level of government is very material, in fact critical, to this issue. If a state interprets their constitution as prohibiting grant money from being used at religious schools, that has no bearing on the federal government. State laws do not apply to the federal government. (I would have thought this was obvious, but perhaps not to you). But if the Feds determine that the U.S. constitution prohibits grant money from being used at religious schools that would apply to all the states.

    2. Unions

    3. We have not had generations of students growing up with a taxpayer-funded public university monopoly. Whether you went to a public or private university, you still paid tuition, and that tuition could be offset by scholarships of various types. The idea of K-12 scholarships, though, is new and therefore scary.

      “What if only the rich students benefit from these scholarships?” whisper the Grima Wormtongues of education. “Public education will be drained of funds if these privileged students seek options elsewhere. Who will ensure that these schools will meet the same, high standards of public education? If we allow religious schools to displace public schools, then soon every child will be indoctrinated with young earth creationism and other nonsense. Do these parents have degrees in education? How would they even be able to distinguish a quality school from some fly-by-night education scam?”

      All of these excuses betray desperation to maintain the status quo by creating fear in those who might explore other options. In the meantime, education suffers and another generation is denied the educations that they could have had, but what’s a few broken eggs?

      1. The idea of K-12 scholarships, though, is new and therefore scary.

        But it isn’t. The voucher-based Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is 26 years old.

        1. you and your pesky facts. This just seems one more way of politicizing the personal. People who gravitate to any form of choice are driven first by frustration with the current system. If public schools were actually doing their job, there would be no market for alternatives.

  2. Choice? What’s that?

  3. When you’ve lost Oberlin…..f-demands/

    1. and more controversial proposals including creating “exclusive Black safe spaces,”

      So…segregation is back in vogue?

      1. what do you mean “back” in vogue? It’s just gaining a new head of steam. Campus calls for black student centers or Indian (feather, not dot) student centers are not necessarily new. North Carolina went through it some time back. It’s more that they’re hitting a more critical mass, no longer outlier events that stayed as local stories.

      2. As long as it is white people who are being excluded, yes.

      3. Segregation is necessary to prevent cultural appropriation.

  4. Claiming that the tax credits were the same thing as government spending, they argued that the bill was an unconstitutional appropriation of public dollars to religious schools.

    Well, yeah. All earnings belong to the government, since they could take it all by force if they wanted to. That means that when they allow you to keep your money, it is in fact them spending their money.

    1. I think your implication is technically/logically right that this isn’t government spending. I wonder if it’s been at all adjudicated on any issue to get a legal position.

  5. Wouldn’t the fact that you are deeming some schools religious and others non-religious be by definition establishing religion?

    1. That was going to be my point, also. In order to say “that particular school is religious” then you have to define religion, that is, funds will be denied to groups that the government recognizes as belonging to a religion, thus giving certain religions the official government stamp, which is, on the face of it, “establishing religion”.

      1. When government defines what is and is not religious, then they are in effect establishing religion.

  6. When you talk about religious schools, are you talking about the real religious schools as Jesus intended them to be or are we talking about some of them heathen schools run by the Jews and the Mohammedans and the Catholics?

    1. Although I suspect that Mohammedism would be considered a culture – and therefore a madrassa not at all a religious school – by some of the same sorts of people who would deny a Baptist school its funding.

    2. Papists*

  7. I did some work for a local Lutheran church that ran a daycare center. In NJ, daycare is subsidized in what they call “Abbott Districts”. The state came in and told the Pastor that they couldn’t teach any religion and that they had to remove all of the religious fixtures from the classrooms or they would be disqualified from receiving state funds.

    Meanwhile, a daycare center that was operating on state funds was “unknowingly” built on the former site of a thermometer factory. Yeah, high levels of mercury in the soil. Yet the local and county officials granted the building permits, and records of the history of the property were available from the state.
    Government knows what is best for you. Especially, in such a highly regulated state as NJ.

    1. Kind of like how the city of Niagara Falls “unknowingly” built two schools on top of toxic waste and didn’t know about the waste in spite of being taken to the site and shown it, the warning in the 3rd paragraph on page 2 of the quitclaim deed giving them the land, and having to move the school site because the builders found that the ground was too unstable due to buried chemical waste.

  8. “Claiming that the tax credits were the same thing as government spending,…”

    Not taking is giving.

    If 95% of the private schools are religious and spending the money there is prohibited, what about the other 5%? If parents can choose non-government schools then it seems more than a little prejudicial to single out certain schools based on their fundamental philosophy.

    Also, given the arguments above regarding PELL grants, I don’t think the state is going to win out on this.

  9. Choice. I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

    1. Abortion is the only choice anyone should be allowed to make on their own. Top. Men. exist to decide everything else.

  10. Should a Gov’t Scholarship Program Exclude Religious Schools?

    How about if the government pays for *those* scholarships only with currency marked “In God We Trust”?

  11. Liberals like to tell people how great the schools are in Europe? but conveniently leaving out the part that how, in many countries, parents can choose the school and the money follow the student.

    1. Looking at the end products of those european schools I take issue with what they call ‘great’.

    2. And many of the countries require some sort of religious instruction (or at least “ethics” for heathens who opt out).

  12. 60 years ago my dad went to college on the GI Bill, to a Jesuit-run school, even though we aren’t Catholic.

    1. My wife went to a Catholic law school, and she’s a jew. It’s amazing that she made it out of there alive.

      1. impossible! they burst into flames if they take communion.

        1. That’s why you’re not supposed to smoke while taking the sacrament.

      2. I’ve heard half the kids in Catholic schools are Jewish?

    2. My son went to public schools. He came out a Protestant fundamentalist who disbelieves much of what he was taught. YMMV.

  13. IJ is a fave, and they don’t take cases at random. I have strong suspicions that they found a flaw in the states claim before they took this, and I just hope it is one of their successes.
    Claiming that the money I didn’t have to turn over to the state is “state spending” is outrageous.

  14. I think a lot of the moaning about ‘Religious schools’ is often made by people (to people) who have no idea what actually goes on in the day-to-day operations of a ‘religious school’.

    I have a number of friends who attended Solomon Schecter. I also knew kids who went to Quaker (Friends) schools. I knew kids who went to catholic private schools, and some that went to baptist colleges.

    Almost all of them got roughly the same ‘education’ as the other. they studied math, history, biology, physics, english, etc. at best, they got an hour or 2 a week of “other stuff” that was more theologically influenced. none of which required any level of personal devotion on their own part in order to “pass”. You could be an atheist (and some were) and no one would ever know the difference unless you decided it was your goal in life to prove to everyone else that their god was a big myth.

    i think the people trying to protect the teachers-union money (*you see, its all supposed to be “theirs”) want people to believe that religious schools are a pussy-hair away from Moonies / Madrassas, creating legions of cross-burners or something.

    1. I went to two religious schools growing up. The major difference I noticed was unlike public schools, the pace didn’t lag at the speed of the slowest student. If a student couldn’t keep up, well then that sucked for them. The result was that the average and bright students weren’t bored all the time, and the lack of idle hands resulted in much less mischief.

      1. By the time the money ran out I was in middle school, and stuck in public schools from then on. I didn’t learn anything new until probably my Junior year. Because I was so fucking bored from being told to do work I had already done years ago, I became quite the trouble maker. To the point where they tried to put me in special-ed. Thankfully my parents intervened. Regardless, nothing was a challenge. I forgot all my good studying habits. By the time I needed them they were long gone and had to be relearned.

        If there is one thing government is good at, it is sucking the work ethic out of people.

        1. “If there is one thing government is good at, it is sucking the work ethic out of people.”

          Go, Dude, Go! Too true…

          Government Almighty almost did that to me when I served in the military, as a “whore for the State”.

          “Henry David Thoreau” reference, something along the lines of, the vast majority of men serve the State as a beast of burden serves the farmer, with their bodies. The exceptional man serves the State with his conscience, and therefor, for the most part, opposes the State”. Whore for the State, beast of burden for the State, same difference…

          Thank Government Almighty, I was granted an early exit, and re-built my work ethic from there. A wee tad of a struggle, but I did it…

    2. I went to Catholic school for eight years. As far as the curriculum goes, you’re right of course. Every subject other than religion (which was part of the curriculum) was taught exactly as it would have been in a public school. There was a lot of other religious aspects to day-to-day activities, though, like prayers, Mass once a week, etc.

  15. What is this thing called “education”?

    1. Its where they make you read stuff and take tests on subjects hardly anyone ever uses or remembers afterward….
      … in order to get accepted into institutions where you spend a lot of money and drink a lot of beer….
      … at which point you are declared “Employable” and begin to learn things that people will actually pay you for.

    2. It’s a subversive activity when done privately but a culturally homogenizing activity when done by the state.

      One Culture, One America, One Leader.


    Satan has been admitted to the hospital after taking a heavy fall on the sidewalk in front of his house

    The evil one was going for a stroll when he slipped on a patch of ice.

    “How did that *&*& ice get there?” An angry Satan demanded.

    Experts believe that Hell may be freezing over now that Reason has linked, favorably, to an op-ed by the President of the Montana Family Foundation.

    (The linked op-ed was in the Billings Gazette.)

    The Mission Statement of the Montana Family Foundation includes the following:

    “The family is defined as people who are related by blood, marriage or adoption and should be founded on a life-long marriage of one man and one woman, which creates the best environment in which to raise children.

    “The principles, in which America’s founding is rooted, support strong and stable families. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, those principles include that American government is derived from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” that all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and that government’s primary responsibility is to “secure these Rights.””

    1. Asked whether this was an example of potential fruitful collaboration between libertarians and SoCons, commenter sevo disagreed.

      “These Sky Daddy bleevers should be strangled in their own entrails,” sevo opined.

      Commenter SugarFree disagreed.

      “No, they should all be tentacle-raped by giant carniverous squids,” SugarFree said, and he went into considerable detail about what this would entail.

      1. Wow, it’s like we’ve got our own little sub-culture going here!

      2. “No, they should all be tentacle-raped by giant carniverous squids,” SugarFree said, and he went into considerable detail about what this would entail.

        Eddie, that is by far your best post.

  17. Here is the relevant provision in the Montana state Constitution:

    Art. X, Sec. 6 “Aid prohibited to sectarian schools. (1) The legislature, counties, cities, towns, school districts, and public corporations shall not make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property for any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.

    “(2) This section shall not apply to funds from federal sources provided to the state for the express purpose of distribution to non-public education.”

  18. Dammit! Everyone and their Mama seems to think, “Oh, religion, how terribly gauche and backward! Public funds should go to fund RATIONAL studies”!

    Sorry to pee in yer Wheaties, but I know of a certain whack job who documented the abuses of the “Church” of Scientology. Their “schools” are tax exempt… Because they are irrational!!! I import his or her quote below… First though… Simple question fer ya: If’n I found the “Church of the Holy Algebra”, will the public schools no longer be allowed to teach Algebra? I rest my case!

    1. Government Almighty (the courts), in Its Wisdom, has decreed that Christian and Jewish religious schools aren’t sufficiently irrational to qualify for tax deductions, like fleecing your scamgrams, ooops, I mean, like auditing your engrams, is. In recent years, a Jewish Torah school sued, saying that they, too, just like Scientology training, are at least partially irrational, so they, too, want tax breaks, just like Scienfoology, ooops, I mean, Scientology. Find more details at…..arla-sklar … Government Almighty has, de facto, decreed that Jewish and Christian schools are WAY too rational, the schooling there is WAY to beneficial, in the real world, to qualify for religious exemptions. Scientology “auditing” and Scientology schools, now, THEY, though (through a SECRET agreement with the IRS), THEY are sufficiently irrational enough to get you an 80% tax deductions for your “contributions” to this “church” for your “auditing”, where they fleece, ooops, I mean audit, away your scamgrams, ooops, I mean, your engrams.

      1. See also page 171 of “Inside Scientology”, a recent book by Janet Reitman. CLEARLY, this is a case where we need a Government Almighty Ministry of Measuring Irrationality to spell out, in explicit legal detail, just HOW irrational we have to be, to get church exemptions!…..s-than-god is a good summary also? We DO have separation of Church and State here in the USA, except for THE one “official” Church of the USA, which is Scientology. All Hail Government Almighty! (That’s our other, modern-day, Officially Approved Church).

        1. Most of all, though, my most pressing pointed question is…

          If’n RELIGIOUS activities are OFF LIMITS to Government Almighty…


          If’n I set up the “Church of the Holy Government Almighty”, then…

          Will Government Almighty no longer be allowed to collect taxes to fund itself?

          If’n so… I am NOW declaring the Holy Founding of…

          the “Church of the Holy Government Almighty”!!!!!!!

  19. OK, re-re-stated a few more times…

    If “Rule 34” says porn can be made out of ANYTHING (or based on anything)…

    Rule 666 says RELIGION can be based on anything! And today, Government Almighty is the “de facto” New Religion. And we have put Government Almighty into the position of judging, “Is your religion “sincerely held”, or not”. Guv Almighty says my “religion” of “Holy Algebra” is NOT sincerely held, so they can go right on teaching Algebra in public schools (even though they do NOT teach it right, according to MY Sacred Algebra beliefs!) It is all arbitrary and random. The WORST of it is, the likes of Scientology get a “free ride” because they are totally irrational. More-rational schools, who teach very little religion, and a LOT of rationality, get SCREWED… You as a donor-parent, must “back out” the RATIONAL value of your contributions! Less-rational, more deductions!!! … Tell me, WHERE is the sense in THAT?!?!?! Gov Almighty, PLEASE GTFO out of religion and schools completely!!!

    1. In case I was not clear… Send yer kiddo to private school, boat-loads of practical, rational skills taught, very little religion… Bend over, get out the Vaseline, get buck-fucked by the IRS. Send yer kiddo to Scientology school and teach them butt-loads of brain-washing “religious” bullshit of no rational value at all, and nothing else, cha-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, roll in the dough of yer tax breaks!!!! Thank You, Government Almighty, may I have another?!??!?!

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