School Choice

Families Ask the Supreme Court to Stop Discrimination Against Religious Schools

Kendra Espinoza's daughters rely on a state-supported scholarship program to attend the school of their choice.


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Kendra Espinoza's two daughters attend a private religious school in Kalispell, Montana, that their family really can't afford—even after Espinoza took a night job as a janitor. The Espinozas were thrilled when they learned they were eligible for a state-supported scholarship program.

The girls enrolled in Stillwater Christian School and the family hoped they would be able to rely on Big Sky Scholarships to help cover some of their costs. The program provides support only to children from low-income families or those with disabilities, at both religious and secular schools. The scholarships are made possible in part by a tax break the state offers to donors who support scholarship programs. Despite the fact that the program explicitly allowed the scholarships to be used at any private school, the Montana Department of Revenue interpreted the state constitution to forbid the participation of religious schools. That set off a cascade of challenges, including Espinoza's.

Montana's reaction to challenges alleging discrimination was to shut it down for all participants, a blow not just to the parents whose children attend religious schools, but to everyone who benefitted from those scholarships.

Back in 2002, the Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution allowed religious schools to participate in state scholarship programs. Today, Espinoza and her lawyers from the Institute for Justice are asking that the Supreme Court go one step further and prohibit state-backed scholarship programs from discriminating against those same schools in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason, joined an amicus brief in support of her case.

Interview by Katherine Mangu-Ward. Edited by Ian Keyser. Intro by Meredith Bragg. Cameras by Meredith and Austin Bragg.

Music: 'Pink Horizon' by Chris Haugen

Photos: CHUCK KENNEDY/KRT/Newscom; Ivan Pendjakov/agefotostock/Newscom