Wednesday, September 25, 2019
With Doug Laycock and counsel at the Christian Legal Society (Kim Colby, Reed Smith), I've co-drafted this amicus brief for 17 religious and educational groups, including the Catholic bishops, the Orthodox (Jewish) Union, the LDS Church, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Southern Baptists, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Missouri-Synod Lutherans, World Vision, and several others. The brief covers several issues.
First, it explains why the Montana Supreme Court violated the Free Exercise Clause by using a discriminatory state constitutional provision, one that singles out religious schools for exclusion, to strike down a neutral school-choice program under which scholarships encouraged by tax credits support religious-school students only because their families choose to use religious schools.
We also explain how cases like this one, involving programs of benefits that include religious schools equally with other schools, relate to other categories of cases under the Religion Clauses. Those others include the issue, now returning to the Court in a couple of certiorari petitions, whether the Free Exercise Clause requires more than just equal protection for religion from government regulation but requires special protection, in the sense that even a generally applicable law must have a strong justification for imposing significant burdens on free exercise. Our key point is that the right to equal inclusion of religious schools in benefit programs ultimately rests on the principle not that religion should be treated the same as everything else, but that the government should respect and protect private choice in religious matters (what Doug has long called "substantive neutrality," Michael McConnell has called "incentive neutrality," and I have called "voluntarism"; we use all the terms in the brief). A key passage:
Applying a general law to a religiously motivated practice may be formally neutral, if the law treats religious and secular violations alike. But if the law significantly burdens religious practice, it prevents people from exercising voluntary religious choice and thus lacks substantive neutrality. The threat of civil or criminal penalties or loss of government benefits profoundly discourages the prohibited religious practice.
Exempting the religious practice from regulation eliminates that discouragement, and it rarely encourages the exempted practice. Nonbelievers will not suddenly start observing the Sabbath, or traveling by horse-and-buggy, or holding their children out of high school just because observant Jews or Adventists or Amish are permitted to do so.
Formal and substantive neutrality both suggest equal treatment of religious and secular schools with respect to financial aid, because money has the same value for everyone. But most exemptions of religious practices have value only for believers in some particular faith. So even though an exemption is a form of religious category, religious exemptions create neutral religious incentives.