Steve Suitts is a civil rights lawyer who has worked for the Southern Education Foundation for many years. His recent book Overturning Brown documents the segregationist history of the school choice movement.

He wrote recently that the Espinoza decision, which awards public money to religious schools, is another step in the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Brown decision.

In a case decided on the grounds of religious freedom, the US Supreme Court took another big step on June 30 in supporting religious discrimination in publicly financed schooling and, more broadly, in overturning Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark opinion that promised the end of racial segregation in public education.

The Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that the US Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom prohibits a state from excluding religious schools when it finances attendance in private schools. There should be no misunderstanding about what this case means in regard to religion: states are now free to finance private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of students’ religions.

As troubling as that holding is, the opinion also constitutes a major, often ignored long-term impact on school desegregation. Today most students attending private schools are in religious schools, and most religious schools are effectively segregated and exclusionary by race. For this reason, Espinoza constitutes a regrettable, and significant, decision in the Supreme Court’s long and certain movement over the last forty years to overturn the Brown decision…

Advocates of “school choice” claim they are advancing religious freedom, social justice, and civil rights when in fact, as I document in “Segregationists, Libertarians, and the Modern ‘School Choice’ Movement,” they echo the language and tactics used by southern segregationists in their efforts to evade school desegregation after Brown. It is there—in the history of the segregationists’ fight against Brown and in how the federal courts addressed their strategies—that the long-range impact of Espinoza becomes evident.

In the years following Brown, southern states passed dozens of bills to condemn and frustrate school desegregation. The overall strategy of massive resistance was based on two basic tactics. One was placing pupils in public schools according to what the segregationists claimed were children’s “ability to learn”—which they believed, but after Brown carefully avoiding saying, was inherently different due to race. The other was funding vouchers for private academies where segregationists were free to set up exclusionary admission standards.