Thursday, July 2, 2020
Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue is an important win for the principle of choice in religious matters, as well as for choice-based programs in education. Its specific holding is somewhat limited, but its implications are broader. Doug Laycock and I have a piece on SCOTUS Blog analyzing the decision, drawing from our amicus brief in the case (for the Christian Legal Society, the USCCB, the Southern Baptists, the Orthodox Union, the Latter-Day Saints, and others) and from our work over the years. Our piece emphasizes a couple of points, with representative excerpts here:
First, although the decision specifically forbids only exclusions from benefits based on a school's status as religious, its reasoning points toward forbidding exclusions even when they allegedly rest on a school's religious use of the funds. Among other things,
the [status-use] distinction collapses in the context of religious K-12 education. Religious schools typically teach the same secular subjects as other schools — English, history, science, math — while also teaching a religion class or integrating relevant religious perspectives into the secular subjects. The religious elements could be characterized as religious “uses.” But if a state denies otherwise-available funds for classes on secular subjects because the school also offers these religious elements, then it goes beyond not funding religion. It imposes a penalty on the secular educational activity — potentially a large penalty, if all funds are denied — because of the religious teaching accompanying it. It penalizes the school, and those it serves, because of its religious identity, its religious functions, and some of the uses to which its money is put.
Second, we explain that equal access for religious providers to government educational benefits promotes both formally neutral treatment of religion (no religious classifications) and substantively neutral treatment (respecting voluntary choice in religious matters, minimizing incentives for or against it). Then we look to other upcoming cases where those goals may conflict; in such cases, we argue, "neutral incentives and voluntarism should be the fundamental goal." The religion clauses treat religion differently from other activities in order to promote freedom of private individuals and communities in religious matters. This is how we approach the subject of religious exemptions:
Critics have sometimes asked whether it is consistent to require equal provision of funds for religious and secular service providers while also allowing, or even requiring, exemptions for religious conduct in the face of generally applicable laws or regulations. Next term the court will take up the question of whether to overrule its decision in Employment Division v. Smith and once again require exemptions in some cases.
If a law creates a conflict with a sincere religious practice, it prevents people from exercising voluntary religious choice and thus violates 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.