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Montana Supreme Court Strikes Down Tax Credits For Donations To Religious Schools


The Montana Supreme Court Wednesday struck down a 2015 state law allowing tax credits for donations to private religious schools.

The court’s 5-2 ruling voids the dollar-for-dollar tax credit, up to $150, which passed, largely along party lines, out of the 2015 Montana Legislature.

In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Laurie McKinnon says the law steps over the line created in the state Constitution that prohibits the state Legislature from making “any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies” to aid religious schools.

The state Department of Revenue argued against the new tax credits. The ACLU of Montana filed as a friend of the Court supporting the Department.

Alex Rate is the state ACLU legal director.

"Here in Montana when the constitutional convention occurred in 1972, our framers were very concerned about excessive entanglement between government and religious educations and religion in general," Rate says. "Today’s ruling was a vindication of our framers’ intent to prevent just that.”

Justices Beth Baker and Jim Rice disagreed with the majority of the court’s decision on the Tax Credit Program.

Baker wrote in her dissent, “The Court’s interpretation ignores, for the most part, the plain language of the Constitution and our constitutional history.”

However, the two dissenting justices joined with the majority view that the Montana Department of Revenue exceeded its authority in its response to the legislation after it passed.

The Revenue Department wrote regulations forbidding religious schools from the new tax credit program over concerns that that would violate the Constitution.

Parents of three religious school students filed lawsuits arguing that the regulations were discriminatory. Last year, a judge in Kalispell ruled in their favor. The Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday overturns that decision.

Republican State Representative LLew Jones.
Republican State Representative LLew Jones.

However Republican Senator Llew Jones, the original sponsor of the law in 2015, says this is not the end of the fight for those who want to see tax credits for their donations to religious or private schools.

“I’m not surprised," Jones says. "This bill was always headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Supporters of the stuck-down tax credit law say they plan to appeal their case. 

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Corin Cates-Carney is the Flathead Valley reporter for MTPR.