Supreme Court: Maine Cannot Ban Religious Schools From Education Programs

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The Supreme Court on Tuesday extended its recent string of victories for religious interests, as it struck down a Maine education program that does not allow public funds to go to schools that promote religious education.

The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Writing for the majority and three opposition liberals.

This was the latest case in which the Court sided with religious interests when balancing the Constitution’s protection of religious practice against its ban on government endorsement of religion.

The case involves a program unusual in a small country that affects only a few thousand students. But it could have larger repercussions as a more conservative court softens the constitutional line between church and state.

Under the program, jurisdictions in rural areas with very sparsely populated populations that support their own high schools can arrange for nearby schools to educate their school-age children, or the state will pay tuition fees for parents to send their children to private schools. But these schools must be non-denominational, meaning they cannot promote a belief or belief system or teach “through the lens of that faith,” in the words of the state’s Department of Education.

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Roberts said the program could not stand up to the Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

“There is nothing neutral about Maine,” he wrote. “The state pays tuition fees 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 dissidents, replied, “This court continues to dismantle the wall between church and state that the founders struggled to build.”

Roberts is joined by fellow conservative judges Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Connie Barrett.

The decision was an example of how Roberts favored moving the law gradually in a conservative direction. In 2017, he wrote the opinion that the state cannot exclude Church Playground from a program that provides funding for safety measures.

In 2020, he wrote to the majority that a Montana program that offers tax credits to donors who have sponsored private school fee scholarships should be open to private religious schools as well.

He wrote: “The state does not need to support private education.” “But once the state decides to do so, it cannot exclude some private schools just because they are religious.”

Roberts wrote in Tuesday’s ruling, “Maine’s decision to continue to exclude religious schools from its educational assistance program … reinforces a stricter separation of church and state than required by the federal constitution.”

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The tribunal’s three liberals – Justices Stephen J. Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sotomayor – said Maine’s case went too far.

Note the Sotomayor track. “What a difference five years makes,” she wrote, “in 2017, I feared the court would be a “pioneer.”[ing] Ours…to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional motto rather than a constitutional obligation. Today, the Court is leading us to a place where the separation of church and state has become a constitutional violation.”

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

“But the key word is maybe,” Breyer wrote. “Never before have we held what the Court considers today, any state Should (Not mayoThe use of state funds to pay for religious education as part of an education program designed to ensure free education in public schools at the state level.”

The case concerns two families who live in a rural area of ​​Maine that does not offer public high schools. David and Amy Carson wanted state tuition payments to continue to send 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 of Justice.

A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which included retired Judge David Sutter, said Maine was within its rights not to spend public funds on schools with a religious message.

Notre Dame law professor Nicole Steele Garnett, who sued the Maine program 25 years ago, called the decision “a victory for religious freedom and for American schoolchildren.”

In a statement, she said the decision “removes a significant obstacle to expanding parental choice in the United States by making clear that when states adopt choice programs, they must allow parents to choose religious schools for their children.”

On the flip side, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, President and CEO Rachel Laser, said in a statement that “the extreme majority in the U.S. Supreme Court continues to redefine the constitutional promise of religious freedom for all as a religious privilege that defined the few.”

the case Carson vs. makin.

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