The Supreme Court overturned a Maine law Tuesday that blocks religious schools from receiving state tuition assistance allocated for private institutions, claiming it “penalizes the free exercise” of religion in the state.
Writing for a 6-3 majority in the case of Carson v. Makin, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that Maine’s tuition scholarship program — which pays for some students to attend “nonsectarian” private schools when there are no public schools in their communities — “operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.”
The decision came four years after two families sued the state after they were denied tuition assistance that they planned to use to send their children to Christian schools.
The 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Maine program, holding that the state was not violating anyone’s constitutional rights by refusing to allow taxpayer money to be used for religious instruction. The three-judge panel included retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who occasionally hears cases in the appeals court.
The most immediate effect of the ruling beyond Maine will be in Vermont, which has a similar program.
But the decision also could fuel a renewed push for school choice programs in some of the 18 states that have so far not directed taxpayer money to private, religious education.
Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, claiming that overturning Maine’s law would violate the principle of separation of church and state.
“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,” wrote Breyer, who is retiring from the bench at the end of this term. “That need is reinforced by the fact that we are today a Nation of more than 330 million people who ascribe to over 100 different religions. In that context, state neutrality with respect to religion is particularly important.
“The Religion Clauses give Maine the right to honor that neutrality by choosing not to fund religious schools as part of its public school tuition program,” Breyer continued. “I believe the majority is wrong to hold the contrary. And with respect, I dissent.”
In his majority opinion, Roberts blasted Breyer’s argument, claiming there was “nothing neutral about Maine’s program.”
‘The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion,” Roberts wrote.
In a separate dissenting opinion, Sotomayor warned that the ruling “leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.
“If a State cannot offer subsidies to its citizens without being required to fund religious exercise, any State that values its historic antiestablishment interests more than this Court does will have to curtail the support it offers to its citizens,” she wrote. “With growing concern for where this Court will lead us next, I respectfully dissent.”
In 2020, the high court ruled 5-4 that states must give religious schools the same access to public funding that other private schools receive, preserving a Montana scholarship program that had largely benefited students at religious institutions.
In that case, the court said states don’t have to allow public money to be used in private education. But they can’t keep religious schools out of such programs, once created.
With Post wires