Supreme Court overturns exclusion of Maine religious schools from tuition assistance program
The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down the state of Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from a public tuition program for towns without public high schools as a violation of the First Amendment.
“Maine’s ‘non-sectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the free exercise clause,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the 6-majority opinion. 3 in Carson v. Makin (No. 20-1088). “Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program works to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools based on their religious practice.”
Dissenters hinted at the decision’s potential impact beyond the original “tuition” programs that Maine and only a handful of other states, Vermont and New Hampshire, operate.
“We have never before ruled what the Court holds today, namely that a State to have to (not may) use public funds to pay for religious education under a tuition program designed to ensure the provision of free public education throughout the state,” wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer in dissent.
“What happens once ‘can’ becomes ‘must’?” Breyer said. “Does this transformation mean that a school district that pays for public schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools? Does this mean that school districts that give out vouchers for use at charter schools have to pay matching funds to parents who want to give their children a religious education? »
In a separate dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “Today the court is taking us to a place where the separation of church and state is becoming a constitutional violation. If a state cannot offer subsidies to its citizens without being required to fund religious exercise, any state that values its historic anti-establishment interests more than this court will have to reduce the support it offers to its citizens.
“With growing concern about where this court will take us next, I respectfully disagree,” she said.
Decision may have implications beyond Maine
The case concerns Maine’s tuition program for some 4,500 students (out of a public school enrollment of 180,000) and the state’s long tradition of requiring towns without high schools to pay to send their students to public schools. or private elsewhere. Since 1980, the state has allowed only “non-sectarian” private schools to participate in the tuition program, excluding those it deems to promote a particular faith or belief system. .
Maine’s exclusion from some religious schools was challenged by David and Amy Carson, whose daughter recently graduated from Bangor Christian Schools, a small, conservative K-12 school; and by Troy and Angela Nelson of Palermo, Maine, who were looking to send their daughter to Temple Academy, another conservative Christian school.
Roberts, in his majority opinion, said the “banal” principles of two recent Supreme Court decisions on government aid to religion “are enough to resolve this case.”
The court held in a 2017 case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, that Missouri violated the US Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion by denying a church participation in a state program to improve playground safety. The decision in this case was based on the religious status of the Lutheran school.
In its 2020 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenuethe court found that a state constitutional provision prohibiting aid to religious schools discriminated against schools and families seeking to benefit from a tax credit program for donations to charitable organizations ‘education.
“[A]s we explained in both Lutheran Trinity and Espinoza…an “interest in separating church and state ‘more fiercely’ than the Federal Constitution … ‘cannot be said to be compelling’ in the face of the violation of free exercise,” Roberts wrote.
“The state pays tuition for some private school students, as long as the schools are not religious,” Roberts said, referring to the Maine program. “It’s discrimination against religion.”
The Chief Justice’s opinion was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Dissidents express concern over religious strife and discriminatory school policies
Breyer, in her dissent joined in full by Judge Elena Kagan and in part by Sotomayor, said the court removed some of the oft-cited “joint play” between the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and its banning clause. government establishment of religion.
“People in our country hold a wide range of beliefs, ideals and philosophies,” Breyer said. “And with greater religious diversity comes a greater risk of conflict, conflict and social division based on religion. The religion clauses were written in part to help avoid this disunity.
The two religious schools at the center of the Maine case both offer evangelistic or Bible-centered approaches quite different from the type of civic education offered by public schools, he said.
Religious schools “have admissions policies that allow them to deny enrollment to students based on their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion, and both schools require their teachers to be born-again Christians,” Breyer said. But Maine lawmakers didn’t want state taxpayers to have to subsidize such policies, he said.
Sotomayor, in his only dissent, said the court “continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.”
“The majority, while claiming to protect against one form of discrimination,” she said, “demands that Maine fund what many of its citizens consider discrimination of other kinds.”
Roberts, in a rejoinder, said the dissenters were wrong that Maine “must” fund religious education.
“Maine chose to allow certain parents to direct state tuition payments to private schools; this decision was not ‘forced’,” he said. The state could “expand the reach” of its public school system or provide transportation, tutoring or distance learning if it chooses, he said.
“While we wanted to Espinoza, a “State does not need to subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do that, it can’t disqualify certain private schools just because they’re religious,” Roberts said, citing his own view of the 2020 decision.