Washington is among 37 states that do not provide vouchers or tax credits for attendance at private and religious schools. The U.S. Supreme Court might be preparing to strike down such “no aid” clauses. We think that is a cause for concern.

The court on Jan. 22 held a hearing over a provision in Montana’s constitution that bars state aid to religious schools. That state’s Supreme Court had struck down a scholarship program for private K-12 schools that makes donors to the program eligible for $150 state tax credits. Most of the scholarship recipients attend religious schools. Parents whose children benefited from the program appealed, saying the “no aid” clause violated their religious freedom.

It appeared from the hearing that some members of the high court’s conservative majority agreed with them.

Separation of church and state has been a hallmark in this country since its founding. According to the United States Courts website: “The First Amendment has two provisions concerning religion: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from ‘establishing’ a religion. …

“Today, what constitutes an ‘establishment of religion’ is often governed under the three-part test set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). Under the ‘Lemon’ test, government can assist religion only if (1) the primary purpose of the assistance is secular, (2) the assistance must neither promote nor inhibit religion, and (3) there is no excessive entanglement between church and state.

“The Free Exercise Clause protects citizens’ right to practice their religion as they please, so long as the practice does not run afoul of a ‘public morals’ or a ‘compelling’ governmental interest.”

One aspect of the Montana case that has us particularly concerned is an attempt to equate this so-called religious discrimination with racial discrimination. Chief Justice John Roberts said no one would defend shutting down all public swimming pools “because a higher percentage of African Americans come and use the pools.” The lawyer representing Montana agreed. “How is that different than religion?” Roberts asked.

It’s much different, Your Honor. Practice of religion is a choice; racial ethnicity is not. Equating racial and religious bias in this case seems rather specious and disingenuous. Frankly, most of those in recent years who claim their religious freedom is being trampled are those who want permission to discriminate against those they disapprove of, such as same-sex couples.

In the Montana case, parents want taxpayers to essentially subsidize their children’s private school education. Taxpayers already support public schools. If parents want to send their kids to private schools, be they secular or religious, that is certainly their right, but it seems a tad audacious to expect taxpayers to pick up some of the bill.

During their confirmation hearings, the two newest Supreme Court justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, declared their fealty to precedent. We hope they will be true to their word. In 2014, the high court, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, ruled, “it is an elemental First Amendment principle that government may not coerce its citizens to support or participate in any religion or its exercise.” It seems to us that is the heart of this case. We hope the U.S. Supreme Court will respect well-established precedent and prevent taxpayers from being forced to support religious schools.

This editorial was published by the Columbian of Vancouver, Wash.

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