SALT LAKE CITY — The Supreme Court opened the door Tuesday to more state financial support for religious schools, ruling that it’s unconstitutional for taxpayer-funded scholarship programs to exclude faith-based institutions.

The justices ruled 5-4 that preventing students at private, religious schools from receiving publicly funded scholarships amounts to religious discrimination. These students must be treated the same as students at other private facilities, they said.

“A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion, which was joined by the court’s four other more conservative justices.

The Supreme Court’s decision will have a major impact on future school funding debates, according to John Bursch, the vice president of appellate advocacy for the Alliance Defending Freedom

Currently, nearly 40 states, including Utah, have laws preventing public money from directly supporting religious schools. Those legal provisions will be harder to enforce now that the Supreme Court has said faith-based organizations need to be treated the same as other private institutions.

“In any of those states, if the government wants to put in place a program that allows students to access vouchers, scholarships, tax credits or educational savings accounts, they have to allow religious students to have those, too,” Bursch said.

The Supreme Court case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, stemmed from a state tax credit program designed to increase scholarship opportunities for students at private schools. When the program launched five years ago, religious and nonreligious institutions were eligible to take part.

That changed after state officials reviewed Montana’s funding laws. Citing a state constitutional provision banning taxpayer money from supporting religious education, they determined that students at religious schools should be ineligible for the new scholarships.

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After this decision was announced, a group of affected families sued the state, arguing that exclusions based on faith violate the U.S. Constitution’s religious protections. They won at the district court level, but then the Montana Supreme Court ruled against them and ordered state leaders to end the entire tax credit program.

The families appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was asked to decide whether it’s legal to prevent religious schools from receiving public money.

During oral arguments in January, the justices appeared divided on whether such funding rules are necessary to ensure separation between church and state or whether they amount to religious discrimination.

The justices who considered it discrimination won out.

“Montana’s no-aid provision bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools. The provision also bars parents who wish to send their children to a religious school from those same benefits, again solely because of the religious character of the school,” the majority opinion explained.

Justices in the minority argued in their dissenting opinions that Montana officials were not aiming to punish people of faith but were, instead, trying to ensure that taxpayer money did not fund religious activities. In the past, the court has said that the government should avoid such entanglement with faith-based institutions.

“The majority’s approach and its conclusion in this case, I fear, risk the kind of entanglement and conflict that the (Constitution’s) religion clauses are intended to prevent,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg highlighted the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the entire tax credit program, noting that students at religious and nonreligious schools are now equally unable to receive public scholarships. This decision may have been disappointing for religious families, but it did not prevent them from continuing to attend faith-based private schools, she said.

“The Montana Supreme Court’s decision does not place a burden on petitioners’ religious exercise. Petitioners may still send their children to a religious school,” Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, which was joined by Justice Elena Kagan.

In the majority opinion, Roberts argued that the court needed to focus on Montana officials’ first move, not the eventual decision to end the program. It’s clear that people of faith in the state were initially treated unfairly because of their religious status, he said.

“Status-based discrimination remains status based even if one of its goals or effects is preventing religious organizations from putting aid to religious uses,” the majority opinion explained.

Roberts focused on the Constitution’s free exercise clause, which prohibits the government from singling out people of faith for mistreatment. However, he also referenced the establishment clause to dispute claims of improper church-state entanglement, noting that families, not government officials, determine where taxpayer funds end up.

“Any establishment clause objection to the scholarship program here is particularly unavailing because the government support makes its way to religious schools only as a result of Montanans independently choosing to spend their scholarships at such schools,” he wrote.

The dissenting justices weren’t the only people dissatisfied with this explanation. Several advocacy groups issued statements Tuesday arguing that Supreme Court had violated longstanding funding rules.

“Today’s ruling erodes the constitutional separation of church and state that has long prevented government from funding the exercise of religion. This is a clear violation of the religious freedom of all taxpayers, who may now be compelled to support religious schools with traditions they do not follow,” said Maggie Siddiqi, who directs the faith and progressive policy initiative at the Center for American Progress.

The justices should have recognized that religious schools can actually benefit from being treated differently than private secular institutions, said Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, in a statement.

“Though religious schools and some parents who choose them in states that have voucher programs will view today’s decision as a win, they may eventually see that it is a pyrrhic victory. The more that religious schools are treated just like all other private schools, the harder it is to justify and defend the special accommodations they receive, including in their hiring and firing practices, admission policies and curriculum choices,” she said.

Other religious freedom advocates applauded the majority opinion, stating that society functions best when religiously affiliated schools are celebrated, rather than punished, for their beliefs.

“This decision means that religious persons and organizations can, like everyone else, participate in government programs that are open to all. This is good news, not only for people of faith, but for our country,” said leaders from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a statement. “By ensuring the rights of faith-based organizations’ freedom to serve, the court is also promoting the common good.”

Similarly, Bursch said the Supreme Court was right to rule in favor of strong religious freedom protections.

“I absolutely think the Supreme Court did the right thing. It held that the government can’t discriminate against religious groups or individuals simply because of religion,” he said.

To be clear, the ruling doesn’t mean that states will be required to send money to private schools, including religious ones. But it does mean that faith-based institutions can’t be treated differently than other schools in the funding programs states choose to create.

This ruling “paves the way for courts to require states that have voucher or scholarship programs for private schools to be required to include religious schools,” said Frank Ravitch, a law and religion professor at Michigan State University.