Taxpayer money for religious school tuition? Supreme Court Conservatives are in favor of the idea

Two Maine families on Wednesday asked the United States Supreme Court to expand taxpayer support for religious schools by demanding a state tuition assistance program to include sectarian and non-sectarian institutions.

The case, which has been closely watched by school choice advocates, could significantly expand religious freedoms and pave the way for broader public support for religious education. Opponents say it risks an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state.

During nearly two hours of oral argument, the conservative majority of court judges seemed very receptive to claims from families that Maine discriminated against on the basis of religion, in violation of the First Amendment, by disqualifying schools that ” promote “a specific faith and teach subjects” through the prism of their faith “.

“Religious discrimination is religious discrimination,” said lawyer Michael Bindas, representing the families. “Religious schools, after all, teach religion much like a soccer team plays soccer and a book club reads books. It is only because of religion that they are excluded.

Maine maintains that its tuition assistance program is intended to subsidize a “rough equivalent of public education” and that its criteria are religiously neutral – discriminating not on school status or affiliation but on what she teaches.

“Maine has made it a matter of public policy that public education be neutral,” said Maine Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub. “[The families] are not discriminated against. “

Since nearly half of Maine’s public school districts do not have their own schools, many of them contract with other districts to provide education to residents or provide tuition – about 11,000 $ per year – for “the approved private school of parents’ choice to which a student is accepted.

Of the roughly 180,000 school children in Maine, only about 5,000 attend private schools with state assistance with tuition fees. The complaining families want to send their children to Christian schools that openly defend religious beliefs and have been excluded from the program.

The Supreme Court said states cannot use taxpayer money to explicitly promote religion, target a religion or discriminate solely on the basis of religious status. The gray area between the two rules is where this matter will be decided.

Chief Justice John Roberts has suggested that any state assessment of religious education to determine qualification for tuition assistance would in itself be unconstitutional discrimination.

“We said this was the most fundamental violation of the religious clauses of the First Amendment, for the government to distinguish between religions based on their doctrine,” Roberts said.

“Why doesn’t he treat people in a neutral way to tell them that you are all equal citizens without respect for your religion, and therefore also all accredited schools are equal without respect for their religion, whether you are secular , Catholic, Jew, what’s the matter, you’re all going to be treated equally? ”He asked.

The court’s three liberal judges took a more critical approach, highlighting potential “conflicts” between citizens who oppose their tax dollars subscribing to religious indoctrination and social values ​​with which they can strongly be. at variance.

“The point is that they teach all subjects through the prism of religion,” Judge Sonia Sotomayor noted.

Judge Elena Kagan insisted that states should be allowed to make their own judgments about funding religious schools based on local opinions.

“Why must the state exercise – must it subsidize the exercise of a right?” Kagan asked. “Basically what Maine is saying here is fine if a locality or a state wants to do it, but we weigh interest differently, and shouldn’t we be allowed to weigh interest differently.”

Bindas, defending the interests of parents, insisted that Maine’s approach is unbearable discrimination.

“This is absolutely discriminatory against parents. It says that you can get an otherwise available public benefit to which you are legally entitled as long as you do not exercise a right recognized by this Court,” he said. “And this Court should not allow that to stand.”

The court is expected to render a decision next spring.

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