Kalispell parents Kendra Espinoza and Jeri Anderson and Bigfork parent Jaime Schaefer are the faces of a Montana case regarding religious schools and funding that will have its day in the United States Supreme Court.
What originated as a lawsuit in December 2015 (Espinoza versus the Montana Department of Revenue) now has school choice, separation of church and state, public and private school advocates across the nation weighing in and waiting for the Supreme Court to decide whether or not invalidating a religiously neutral student-aid program violates the U.S. Constitution’s religion clauses or equal protection clause.
The parents’ involvement in the case dates back to 2015 when the Montana Legislature passed an unprecedented law providing a tax credit, up to $150, for donors supporting scholarships for private schools.
The children of Espinoza, Anderson and Schaefer receive scholarships to help cover the cost of tuition to attend Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell.
The lawsuit was filed not long after the Montana Department of Revenue issued an administrative rule restricting tax credit eligibility to donations for scholarships that supported non-religious, private schools only. Nearly 90 percent of the otherwise eligible private schools in Montana have a religious affiliation.
The state contended that allowing those tax credits to incentivize donations to religious schools would violate the Montana Constitution’s prohibitions on funding religious organizations.
In December 2018, the Montana Supreme Court reversed a Flathead District Court ruling in favor of the three parents and invalidated the entire tax-credit scholarship program.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the state court ruling.
About 7,000 to 8,000 cases are filed in the U.S. Supreme Court each term. The court reviews approximately 80 cases, according to www.supremecourt.gov.
The parents are represented by the Institute of Justice, a Virginia-based Libertarian nonprofit law firm with a focus on school-choice cases.
Espinoza and Anderson met with the Daily Inter Lake on Wednesday to talk about the experience of being involved in a case that is on the docket of the nation’s highest federal court.
Neither anticipated the case to reach the “court of last resort.”
“Oh, goodness never,” said Espinoza. “I don’t think I had any clue to the ramifications of this whole thing; where it was going to end up and how far it was going to go. I think I assumed in the beginning we would settle it here locally, at the local level.”
Anderson echoed a similar sentiment.
“The Institute reached out to us through the school and met with us one-on-one because the three of us — obviously many others — but the three of us had need for financial assistance,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza is a single mother with two daughters who will enter eighth and sixth grades this year. The plan is that they will continue attending Stillwater through high school. Espinoza, who currently works three jobs, said scholarships cover up to 35 percent of her daughters’ school tuition.
“There’s no way I could do it otherwise without the help. I work extra jobs to try and make it as it is, but even with that there’s no way. I mean as a single parent, I think it would be impossible to make it otherwise with two kids,” Espinoza said.
Anderson is a single mother of a daughter who will be in sixth grade. Her daughter also plans to attend the private school through 12th grade.
“I know Emma is at the right school,” Anderson said about her daughter.
“Like your kids, they thrive [at Stillwater],” Anderson said, gesturing toward Espinoza. “I don’t have to think twice this is where she should be. When your kids are excited to go to school — they’re in the right environment.”
As the lead plaintiff, Espinoza was asked if the national spotlight on the case has affected her or her children.
“I always wonder, how did I get into this position because I wouldn’t have chosen that, but it hasn’t harmed us. It has certainly educated us and given us a really good insight into how the system, how the legislature, works, how the judicial system works — we’ve learned a lot,” Espinoza said. “It’s made us really aware of the needs of so many families around the nation [and] around the state.”
“As far as being in the spotlight, I’m not crazy about doing interviews, but we’ve just learned to be ourselves,” she said with a smile.
“I think it’s the attorneys doing all the work,” she added. “We’re just the face of the case. We’re just personalizing it for people because there are so many families that would like to send their kids to private education, but wouldn’t be able to without some assistance.”
Anderson noted, “I don’t know if it’s affected Emma too much. She’s excited about the prospects of being at the Supreme Court and seeing how that process unfolds.”
Anderson and Espinoza are planning to travel with their children to Washington, D.C., to watch the oral arguments expected to take place in the winter of 2020 with a decision anticipated in the summer.
“I think having it go to the Supreme Court was a blessing in disguise just because then it can be settled once and for all because so many other states are looking at this case and watching it,” Espinoza said.
She later reflected on what her main concerns have been since the beginning.
“It’s my idea that it’s an attempt by the government, by the Department of Revenue, to start eliminating any opportunities for people to get tax credits for anything to do with any religion, but, here I can contribute to my church directly — it’s a religious organization — and get a tax deduction for it,” Espinoza said. “So how is it that a private scholarship organization, that is also a nonprofit, you know, those people [who donate] can’t get a tax deduction and we can’t use those scholarship funds? I think it’s just one step in that attempt to totally discriminate against religion. That’s just my take.”
“I think they’re afraid we’re taking those funds away from public education and really, we’re not,” Anderson said
Added Espinoza, “I hear that argument a lot from people.”
“I still pay for it [public education] on my taxes,” both said in unison.
Institute of Justice Attorney Erica Smith said she was confident the case would go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The reason we expected the case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court is because it involves an issue that’s confused the lower courts for decades and that’s whether the government can prohibit religious options in student-aid programs,” Smith said in a phone interview. “If the court rules in our favor we expect their decision to make clear that government cannot exclude religious options in student-aid programs.”
“The First Amendment requires government to be neutral, not hostile toward religion,” Smith said in a follow-up email. “Yet, the Montana Supreme Court showed complete hostility toward religion by prohibiting religious schools and the families who want to attend them from participating in any student aid program. This is unconstitutional.”
The Montana Department of Revenue issued a statement regarding the Espinoza case in an email, saying “the Montana Supreme Court correctly concluded that the Montana Constitution prevents public funding of private religious schools. The State of Montana is ready to defend its case before the United States Supreme Court to protect Montana’s Constitution.”
The American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and the Montana Federation of Public Employees President Eric Feaver issued a joint statement in a press release following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June announcement. The American Federation of Teachers is the nation’s second largest teacher’s labor union. The Montana Federation of Public Employees represents about 25,000 public employees.
“The separation of church and state harkens back to the beginnings of the U.S. Constitution,” Weingarten said. “This long tradition — established to ensure the religious freedom of all — should be protected by conservatives and liberals alike. It’s alarming that the current Supreme Court would try to revisit and undo that precedent, in public schools no less, as it sets a dangerous standard and opens the door to the dismantling of a basic tenet of our nation’s democracy.”
Feaver said, “The Supreme Court’s decision is sad and troubling. It suggests Montana’s Constitution may be at risk right along with our public schools. It suggests extraordinary federal intrusion into the constitutional and public school affairs of this state and perhaps many others.”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.