Supreme Court strikes down Maine religious school tuition law

The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a Maine law that bars religious schools from receiving public tuition assistance allocated to private institutions, saying it “criminalizes the free exercise” of religion in the state.

Writing for a 6 to 3 majority in Carson v. Makin, Chief Justice John Roberts said Maine’s scholarship program – which pays for some students to attend “non-sectarian” private schools when there are no public schools in their communities – “operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious practice.

The decision came four years after two families sued the state after being denied tuition assistance they planned to use to send their children to two Christian schools.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Maine program, finding the state violated no one’s constitutional rights by refusing to allow taxpayer dollars to be used for religious instruction . The three-judge panel included retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who occasionally hears cases in the appeals court.

The Supreme Court struck down a Maine law that excluded religious schools from eligibility for a state tuition program.
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David Carson and his daughter Olivia Carson were one of two families who sued Maine for the law.
David Carson and his daughter Olivia Carson were one of two families who sued Maine for the law.
Courtesy of the Institute of Ju

The most immediate effect of the decision beyond Maine will be in Vermont, which has a similar program.

But the decision could also fuel new pressure for school choice programs in some of the 18 states that have so far not directed taxpayer dollars to private religious education.

“I expect religious groups in rural states to lobby lawmakers to implement similar tuition assistance programs that already exist in Vermont and Maine,” said Samuel Abrams, director. from the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University Teachers College.

“They had never had a reason to do this before. Now the Supreme Court has declared such restrictions unconstitutional,” he added.

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying striking down Maine’s law would violate the principle of separation of church and state.

“Maine wishes to provide the children of the state with a secular public education. This wish embodies, in large part, the constitutional need to avoid spending public money to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion,” wrote Breyer, who retires from the bench at the end of this term. “This need is reinforced by the fact that today we are a nation of more than 330 million people who adhere to more than 100 religions In this context, state neutrality with regard to religion is particularly important.

“Religious clauses give Maine the right to honor that neutrality by choosing not to fund religious schools as part of its public school tuition program,” Breyer continued. “I believe that the majority is wrong to argue the contrary. And with respect, I disagree.

In his majority opinion, Roberts lambasted Breyer’s argument, saying there was “nothing neutral about Maine’s program.”

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The three liberal justices on the court dissented, saying overturning the law would violate the separation of church and state.
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“The state pays tuition for some students in private schools, as long as the schools are not religious. This is discrimination against religion,” Roberts wrote.

In a separate dissenting opinion, Sotomayor warned that the decision “leads us to a place where the separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.

“If a state cannot provide 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,” she wrote. “With growing concern about the direction this Court will take us next, I respectfully disagree.”

In 2020, the High Court ruled 5-4 that states must give religious schools the same access to public funding that other private schools receive, preserving a Montana scholarship program that had largely benefited students of religious institutions.

In that case, the court said states were not required to allow public money to be used in private education. But they cannot exclude religious schools from such programs, once created.

“It shouldn’t have surprised anyone,” Abrams said of Tuesday’s decision after the 2020 decision. “There’s only one step between the Montana decision and the Maine decision.”

The principal also expressed concern about the lack of safeguards for private schools receiving public funding – relating, for example, to whether students or teachers will be banned from enrolling or teaching, or whether the program will align with state standards. One of the schools at the center of the Maine case said it would not hire teachers or admit transgender students. Both schools said they did not hire gay or lesbian teachers, according to court records.

“The barn door is open, and I think the big issue is regulation,” Abrams said.

With post wires

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