- Maine’s rural school districts have provided parents with an allowance to be used for private and secular education.
- The Supreme Court has ruled that banning the use of money in religious schools violates the First Amendment.
- Justice Sotomayor wrote in dissent that the ruling erodes the separation of church and state.
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a ban on the state using state funds to attend schools that provide religious instruction, the latest case in which the High Court has allowed taxpayer funds to be used for purposes nuns.
At issue was an unusual program in Maine that provides grants for education in rural districts that don’t have their own high school. The state allows parents in this situation to use money that would have been spent locally to send their children to other public or private schools — but not to programs that provide religious instruction.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for a 6-3 majority of conservative justices, finding the state ban violates the First Amendment.
“The state pays tuition for some students in private schools — as long as the schools aren’t religious,” Roberts wrote. “It’s discrimination against religion.”
Although the decision’s immediate impact was limited to Maine, critics — including the three liberal justices who dissented — questioned whether it might have broader implications for school choice and others. government-funded programs elsewhere.
“This court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Founders fought to build,” Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. “With growing concern about where this court will take us next, I respectfully disagree.”
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Given the number of recent decisions in which the nation’s highest court has ruled in favor of protecting religious practice, the outcome has come as no surprise. What’s less clear is how the ruling may affect similar controversies, such as the use of taxpayer funding for religious schools outside of the narrow circumstances involved in the case.
“The court is forcing taxpayers to fund religious education,” said Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The court has opened the door to government mandated tithing, an invitation that religious extremists will not ignore.”
Maine critics countered that the ban prevented parents from making decisions for their children.
“Parents have a constitutional right to choose such schools for their children, and the court today ruled that a state cannot deny them that choice in programs that allow for other private options,” Michael said. Bindas, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice who represented parents challenging the Maine policy.
Two families who wanted to use the state grant for religious education sued in 2018, claiming the Maine policy violated their First Amendment right to practice religion without government interference. Maine countered that using public funds for religious instruction would create a host of new issues — including how to accommodate students who belong to religions for which there are no schools.
In Tuesday’s opinion, Roberts pushed back against the idea of the court compelling school districts to fund religious schools. Maine does not have to fund private schools at all, he claimed in the notice. The state could, for example, increase transportation options for students in remote areas so they can more easily access other public schools. Or Maine could “operate its own boarding schools.”
The dispute was similar to one the Supreme Court considered in 2020. Roberts then wrote by a 5-4 majority that a Montana scholarship program could not exclude religious schools. Roberts said a state doesn’t have to provide money to private schools, but if it chooses to do so, it cannot “disqualify certain private schools just because they are religious.”
This decision concerned a school that had religious ties but did not explicitly teach religion in the classroom. Lower federal courts have distinguished between withholding taxpayer money from an entity because of its status as a religious institution and withholding money used for religious purposes, such as Bible teaching. It’s a subtle distinction, but with potentially wide implications: some schools may have a sectarian affiliation, but their curriculum may more or less resemble that of secular public schools.
In the Maine case, the Boston-based United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled for the state, finding that funding was not denied because the schools were Christian, but rather because of the Christianity that the schools teach. Several conservative High Court judges questioned whether there was a significant difference between the two.
In Tuesday’s opinion, the court threw cold water on that distinction, suggesting that any attempt to separate a school’s religious status from its instruction “would raise serious concerns about the state’s entanglement with religion and denominational favouritism”.
Some experts see potential impact far beyond Maine in the current case if it is interpreted as forcing states to fund religious schools in programs where they currently do not. The decision could involve public funding for schools more broadly, even in traditional public districts without subsidies, some experts have suggested.
“This ruling affirms that parents should be able to choose a school that is consistent with their values or that honors and respects their values,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs at EdChoice, a group that supports school choice programs. . “By excluding parents with certain values, discrimination is rampant.”
Others said the decision would undermine traditional public schools.
“Forcing American taxpayers to fund private religious education… erodes the foundations of our democracy and hurts students,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, a teachers’ union. “The job of the Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution, not to invent doctrines to promote radical policy outcomes in education.”