Supreme Court: Maine cannot ban religious schools from tuition program

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The Supreme Court on Tuesday extended a recent string of victories for religious interests, overturning a Maine tuition program that does not allow public funds to go to schools that promote religious instruction.

The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. written for the majority and the three dissenting Liberals from the court.

It was the latest case in which the court ruled on the side of religious interests when weighing the Constitution’s protection of religious exercise against its ban on government endorsement of religion.

The case concerns an unusual program in a small state that only affects a few thousand students. But it could have bigger implications as the more conservative court loosens the constitutional line between church and state.

Under this program, jurisdictions in rural areas too sparsely populated to support their own secondary schools can arrange for nearby schools to teach their school-aged children, or the state will pay tuition to parents. to send their children to private schools. But those schools must be nonsectarian, meaning they can’t promote any faith or belief system or teach “through the prism of that faith,” in the words of the state education department. .

Supreme Court says states that subsidize private education must include religious schools

Roberts said this program could not survive the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

“There is nothing neutral about the Maine program,” he wrote. “The state pays tuition for some students in private schools – as long as the schools are not religious. This is discrimination against religion.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, one of the dissenters, replied, “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between Church and State that the Framers fought to build.

Roberts was joined by fellow conservative justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

The ruling was an example of how Roberts prefers to shift the law incrementally in a conservative direction. In 2017, he wrote the opinion that a state could not exclude a church playground from a program that provided funding for safety measures.

In 2020, he wrote for the majority that a Montana program that offered tax credits to donors who sponsored scholarships for private school tuition should also be open to private religious schools.

“A state does not need to subsidize private education,” he wrote. “But once a state decides to do that, it can’t disqualify certain private schools just because they’re religious.”

Roberts wrote in Tuesday’s ruling, “Maine’s decision to continue to exclude religious schools from its tuition assistance program…promotes a stricter separation of church and state than is currently the case.” requires the Federal Constitution.

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The three liberals on the court — Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sotomayor — said the Maine case went too far.

Sotomayor noted the trajectory. “What a difference five years make,” she writes, “In 2017, I feared the Court would be”[ing] we…to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment. Today, the Court leads us to a place where the separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.

Breyer, in a separate dissent joined by Sotomayor and Kagan, said the court has in the past agreed that states can provide assistance to private religious schools.

“But the key word is May,” Breyer wrote. “We have never considered before what the Court considers 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.

The case involved two families who lived in a rural part of Maine that did not offer public high schools. David and Amy Carson wanted state tuition to continue sending their daughter to Bangor Christian Schools, and Troy and Angela Nelson, who wanted to send their daughter to Temple Academy. They were represented by conservative and libertarian legal groups, including the Institute for Justice.

A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, which included retired Judge David Souter, said Maine was within its rights not to spend public funds on schools with religious missions.

Notre Dame law professor Nicole Stelle Garnett, who sued Maine’s program 25 years ago, called the decision “a victory both for religious freedom and for American school children.” “.

She said in a statement that the decision “removes a major barrier to the expansion of parental choice in the United States by clarifying that when states enact choice programs, they must allow parents to choose denominational schools for their children”.

On the other side, President and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Rachel Laser, said in a statement that “the ultra-conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court United continues to redefine the constitutional promise of religious freedom for all as a religious privilege for a select few.

The deal is Carson v. Makin.

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