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The Free Exercise Clause, which applies to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment, protects religious observers against unequal treatment and against laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status. Those basic principles have long guided the U.S. Supreme Court. A State cannot exclude individual Catholics, Lutherans, Mohammedans, Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Non-believers, Presbyterians, or the members of any other faith, because of their faith, or lack of it, from receiving the benefits of public welfare legislation. The Free Exercise Clause protects against laws that penalize religious activity by denying any person an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens.
The Montana Legislature established a program to provide tuition assistance to parents who send their children to private schools. The program grants a tax credit to anyone who donates to certain organizations that in turn award scholarships to selected students attending such schools. When petitioners sought to use the scholarships at a religious school, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program. The Montana Supreme Court relied on the “no-aid” provision of the State Constitution, which prohibits any aid to a school controlled by a “church, sect, or denomination.”
Did the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution bar that application of the no-aid provision?
The Court held that a state revenue department regulation prohibiting families from using these scholarships at religious schools, based on Montana Constitution's no-aid provision, Mont. Const. art. X, § 6, violated the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Free Exercise Clause protected religious observers against unequal treatment and against laws that imposed special disabilities on the basis of religious status. Applying strict scrutiny, the Free Exercise Clause barred application of Montana's no-aid provision, and the Montana Supreme Court erred in holding that even such indirect government support qualified as “aid” prohibited under the Montana Constitution because the matter was governed by the federal Constitution's Free Exercise Clause.