The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday: Maine must include religious schools in a program that offers tuition aid for private education. The decision could ease religious organizations’ access to taxpayer money.
The 6-3 verdict could renew pushes for school choice programs in 18 states that so far don’t give taxpayer money to private, religious education. This decision is the latest Supreme Court ruling that has favored religion-based discrimination claims.
The court is separately weighing the case of a football coach who says he has a First Amendment right to pray at midfield immediately after games. (Read Making a Choice, written when Coach Joe Kennedy first lost his job in 2015.)
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the conservative majority that the Maine program violates the Constitution’s protections for religious freedoms. “The program [identifies and excludes] otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise,” Roberts wrote.
The court’s three liberal justices dissented. “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Stephen Breyer noted in a separate dissent that Maine “wishes to provide children within the State with a secular, public education. This wish embodies, in significant part, the constitutional need to avoid spending public money to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion.”
But Roberts wrote that states are not compelled to subsidize private education. Once they do, however, they can’t cut out religious schools.
Most of the justices attended religious schools, and several send or have sent their children to them.
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey isn’t surprised by the court’s decision. However, he feels it is not consistent with his reading of the Constitution. Until now, Maine’s exclusion of religious schools has been upheld, according to Frey. He says, “Frankly, it is concerning, even though we saw it coming.”
In largely rural Maine, the state allows families who live in towns without public schools to receive public tuition dollars to send their children to the public or private school of their choosing. Until now, the program has excluded religious schools.
Parents who challenged the program argued that this exclusion violates their religious rights under the Constitution.
In the case, parents sued in federal court to be able to use state aid to send their children to Christian schools in Bangor and Waterville. The schools in question, Bangor Christian School and Temple Academy, are uncertain whether they would even accept public funds.
Michael Bindas, the parents’ lawyer at the high court, says justices made clear Tuesday that “there is no basis for this notion that the government is able to single out and exclude religious options.”
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticizes the court for “forcing taxpayers to fund religious education” and cloaking “this assault on our Constitution in the language of non-discrimination.”
Tuesday’s decision reversed an earlier ruling in favor of the Maine program—and made clear that religious schools must be part of the mix when states devote public money to private school choice programs.
Leslie Hiner is vice president of legal affairs for school choice group EdChoice. “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,” she says. “By shutting out parents with certain values, that’s discrimination run rampant.”
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. — Proverbs 22:6
(The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Washington, D.C. AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)