Carson v Makin ruling: Maine tuition aid OK for religious schools

The ruling could trigger a new boost for school choice programs in some of the 18 states that have not previously allocated taxpayer money to private, religious education.

WASHINGTON — Editor’s Note: The attached video is from Dec 2021, when the Supreme Court heard the case.

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Maine cannot bar religious schools from a program that offers grants for private education, a decision that could give religious organizations easier access to taxpayers’ money.

The 6-3 result could spark a renewed push for school choice programs in some of the 18 states that have not previously allocated taxpayer money to private religious education. The most immediate impact of the court ruling beyond Maine will likely be felt next door in Vermont, which has a similar program.

The ruling is the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that have favored sectarian claims of discrimination. The court is separately considering the case of a football coach who says he has a First Amendment right to pray immediately after midfield games.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a conservative majority that the Maine program violated the constitution’s protection of religious liberty.

“Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its otherwise universally available student aid payments violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of how the benefit and limitation are described, the program serves to identify and disqualify otherwise eligible schools based on their religious practice,” Roberts wrote.

The court’s three liberal judges disagreed. “This court continues to dismantle the barrier between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.

Judge Stephen Breyer, in a separate dissent, noted that Maine “wants to provide secular, public education for children within the state. This desire embodies in significant part the constitutional requirement not to spend public funds in support of what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion.”

But Roberts wrote that states are not required to subsidize private education. Once they do so, however, they can no longer exclude religious schools, he wrote, echoing his sentiments in a similar case from two years ago. “Maine opted to allow some parents to direct state tuition to private schools; this decision was not ‘forced upon’ him,” Roberts wrote, citing Sotomayor’s disagreement.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said during a radio appearance Tuesday that he was not surprised by the court’s decision but felt it was inconsistent with his interpretation of the constitution.

Frey also said the court’s ruling will require a re-evaluation of its application to state law.

So far, Maine’s ban on religious schools has been upheld, Frey said while appearing on Maine Public. “Honestly, it’s worrying, even though we saw it coming.”

The ideological schism in Tuesday’s decision was also apparent during December’s wrangling, when conservative judges appeared largely unconvinced by Maine’s position that the state is willing to pay for the approximate equivalent of a public education, but not for religious enrollment.

In largely rural Maine, the state allows families living in towns where there are no public schools to receive public tuition to send their children to the public or private school of their choice. The program has excluded religious schools.

Students residing in a district with public schools or in a district that has contracts with another public system are excluded from participation in the degree program.

Parents who challenged the program argued that excluding religious schools violated their religious rights under the constitution. Teachers’ unions and school boards said states could limit public funding for private education without violating freedom of religion.

Michael Bindas, a solicitor for the Libertarian Institute of Justice who is lobbying for the parents in the High Court, said the court clarified on Tuesday that “there is no basis for this notion that the government is able to impose religious… to single out and rule out options”.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, slammed the court for “forcing taxpayers to fund religious education” and for “cloaking this attack on our Constitution in nondiscrimination language.”

In the Maine case, parents sued in federal court for state aid to send their children to Christian schools in Bangor and Waterville. The schools in question, Bangor Christian School and Temple Academy, are not sure if they would accept public funds, according to court documents.

Bangor School said it would not hire teachers or accept students who are transgender. Both schools said they would not hire gay or lesbian teachers, according to court documents.

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states must give religious schools the same access to public funds as other private schools, and maintained a Montana Scholarship program that had largely benefited students at religious institutions.

In this case, the court said states do not have to allow public funds to be used for private education. But they cannot keep religious schools out of such programs once they are created.

But even after that ruling, the 1st US Circuit of Appeals upheld the Maine program, finding that the state violated no one’s constitutional rights by refusing to use taxpayer dollars for religious instruction. The three-judge panel included retired Judge David Souter, who occasionally hears cases before the Court of Appeals.

Tuesday’s decision overturned that Court of Appeals ruling, clarifying that religious schools must be part of the mix when states allocate public money to private school choice programs.

“This ruling affirms that parents should be able to choose a school that is compatible with their values ​​or that honors and respects their values. By excluding parents with certain values, this discrimination is pervasive,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for school voting group EdChoice.

Most judges attended religious schools, and some sent or have sent their children there. Carson v Makin ruling: Maine tuition aid OK for religious schools

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