Supreme Court rejects Maine ban on helping religious schools

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Maine may not exclude religious schools from a public education program. This decision, by a court that has become more accepting of claims by people and religious groups in a variety of places, was the latest in a series of rulings requiring the government to help religious institutions on the same terms as other private organizations.

The vote was 6 to 3, with three liberal justices on the court opposing.

The case Carson v. McCain, no. 20-1088, originated from an unusual program in Maine, which required rural communities without public high schools to arrange for the education of their young residents in one of two ways. They can sign contracts with nearby public schools, or they can pay tuition at a private school chosen by parents as long as it is, in the words of state law, “a nonsectarian school according to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Two families in Maine who send their children or want to send them to religious law schools have appealed, saying it violates their right to freely practice their faith.

One of the schools involved in the case, Temple Academy in Waterville, Maine, says it expects its teachers to “integrate Bible principles with their teaching in every subject” and teach students to “spread the word of Christianity.” The other school, Bangor Christian Schools, says it seeks to develop “inside each student a Christian view of the world and a Christian philosophy of life.”

The Maine Supreme Court summary said the two schools “expressly acknowledge that they discriminate against gay, transgender, and non-Christian individuals.”

The case was very similar to a case from Montana that the court ruled in 2020, Espinosa v. Montana Department of Revenue. In that case, the court ruled that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote for the majority in the Montana case, said a provision in the state constitution that prohibits assistance to church-run schools conflicts with the US Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion by discriminating against religious people. and schools.

The president of the court 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.”

But Montana’s decision was reflected in the religious status of the schools, not their curricula. Chief Justice Roberts said there may be a difference between the institution’s religious identity and its behaviour.

“We understand the point,” he wrote, “but there is no need to examine it here.”

The new issue of Maine has solved this open question.

The Supreme Court has long held that states may choose to provide assistance to religious schools along with other private schools. The question in both cases from Montana and Maine was the opposite: Can states refuse to provide such assistance if it is provided to other private schools?

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