This week, three parents from a Christian school in Kalispell filed a suit over the state’s exclusion of religious schools in a program to provide scholarships for public and private education.
Kendra Espinoza is one of the plaintiffs in the case. She says scholarships are the only reason why she can afford to send her kids to the private religious school she chooses.
“As a single mom there would be no way that I could do it. I work one job, then there are other jobs I do. I’m doing the best that I can do. But even as a two parent family I think it would be difficult to afford, even from two parent income. So, for me it would be really impossible if I didn’t have any kind of support or help.”
At Stillwater Christian, where the kids of all the plaintiffs go, about 40 percent of all students there receive financial aid to attend the school.
Erica Smith is the attorney for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice representing the parents. She says families often have to make financial sacrifices if they move their kids to any private school.
“And this is the case with our three clients, they don’t know from a month to month basis whether they are going to continue to afford the private school tuition. And this program is designed to change that and give them real choice.”
The law in debate was created by the 2015 Legislature allowing tax credits for individual donations of up to $150 to fund private school scholarships or innovative public school programs.
The suit over the program was filed Wednesday after the Montana Department of Revenue ruled that religious schools couldn’t benefit from the scholarships, because the state constitution doesn’t allow public money go to religious organizations.
“But the problem with that argument is that the only thing this program is doing is incentivizing private donations with a modest $150 tax credit.”
“In Article 10.6, the constitution says there shall be no direct or indirect appropriations for religions education.”
That’s Eric Feaver, president of the union that represents public school employees. He says the Department of Revenue was following the language of the bill and constitution when it excluded religious schools from the tax-credit scholarships.
"If legislators today now think that somehow or another that was not their intent, I would argue they didn’t read the bill.”
The big question here is what is does the constitution define as indirect appropriation - and does a tax credit count?
Senator Llew Jones was a sponsor of the tax-credit bill. He says the debate over tax credits for private schools being constitutional or not has been going on a long time.
“Lawyers split on the issue. I did recognize that there would be some concerns here. And I certainly hope and feel that the education community students will be much better off when this issue has received finality, finality mostly likely coming from a supreme court decision.”
Either way the debate goes, Jones says the bill will survive. If tax credits for religious schools are found to be unconstitutional then the public schools and private secular students will get the scholarship money. If not, then scholarships will be available for all private and public education.
The tax-credit program is limited at $3 million the first year and goes into effect January 1.
The lawsuit was filed in district court in Flathead county, a hearing date has not been set.