maine cannot prevent parents from using the state-funded education aid program to send their children to private religious schools, the US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The 6-3 decision – the latest in a series of rulings arguing for religious freedom arguments – comes after civil rights advocates warned the case could take a long time. “demolition ball” for the separation of church and state†
The case, Carson v. Makin, was brought by two families who live in parts of rural Maine where there is no public school. Instead, families in those areas could use a taxpayer-funded education aid program to send their children to an accredited private school — as long as the school was secular. Maine banned parents from using the money to send their children to schools that provide religious education, a rule designed to prevent public funds from being used for religious activities. The families disputed that rule, claiming it violated both the religion clauses and the equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court sided with the families, with the conservative majority ruling that the ban violated the constitutional protections of religious freedom.
“A state need not subsidize private education,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion of the majority. “But once a state decides to do this, it cannot disqualify some private schools just because they are religious.”
The closely watched case pits the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, which protects the right to practice religion, against the establishment clause, which prohibits the government from establishing or favoring any religion. In his opinion, Roberts wrote that using the program to pay for religious schools would not violate the establishment clause, as public funds flow to religious organizations through the “independent choices of private benefit recipients.”
Carson v. Makin is a key case in a series of lawsuits over whether public funding can be spent on religious institutions — and marks an important development in wider debates about the separation of church and state. The decision is also the final victory for religious freedom groups for the conservative 6-3 Supreme Court majority. The vote split along ideological lines, with the three liberal judges of the court disagreeing.
In her dissenting opinion, Judge Sonia Sotomayor argued that the decision “continues to dismantle the church-state separation wall that the Framers have been fighting to build.”
Amy and David Carson, two of the parents who have sued the state, told TIME in a statement that they are “delighted that today’s decision will allow families in Maine to choose the school that is best for their child. ” Their attorney, Michael Bindas, a senior attorney at the libertarian law firm the Institute for Justice, added that Tuesday’s decision makes it clear that parents have a “constitutional right to choose [religious schools] for their children,” and the state cannot “deny them that choice in programs that allow for other private options.”
Why LGBTQ Advocates Are Concerned
Religious freedom groups hope the decision will allow more families to send their children to religious schools. But LGBTQ rights advocates and Maine officials argue the decision could lead taxpayers to attend schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students and school staff.
“I am terribly disappointed and discouraged by today’s decision,” Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a statement Tuesday. “Public education should expose children to different points of view, promote tolerance and understanding and prepare children for life in a diverse society. The education provided by the schools in question is at odds with public education. They promote a single religion to the exclusion of all others, refuse to admit gay and transgender children, and openly discriminate in the hiring of teachers and staff.”
He said he plans to explore options to ensure that public funds are not used “to promote discrimination, intolerance and bigotry”.
The ruling is a victory for the school choice movement, which supports programs that allow parents to use public funds to send their child to schools that go beyond traditional public schools — an option conservative legal groups have long supported. Kevin Roberts, the chairman of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in a statement that the decision “protects parents who simply want to send their children to schools that align with their values.”
“We believe that more choices are always better,” said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine. Conley attended one of the religious schools the plaintiffs wanted to send their children to, the Bangor Christian Schools, and was principal of the school from 1992 to 2000. “It was so positive for me,” he says. “I want other families, regardless of their financial situation, to have options.”
But Maine alleged in court documents that Bangor Christian Schools and Temple Academy, the other school the plaintiffs wanted their children to attend, discriminated against people of other faiths and LGBTQ teachers and students. Bangor Christian Schools allow students who are transgender or openly gay to be suspended or expelled because of their sexuality or gender identity, and the school does not hire transgender or gay teachers, according to a memorandum filed by Maine . officials† Noelle Shamlian, an alumnus of Bangor Christian Schools, told TIME in January that they were threatened with deportation after being released as bisexual in 2019. (The head of Bangor Christian Schools declined to comment on Shamlian’s allegations when reached by TIME in December.)
In her filing, Maine pointed to the Maine Human Rights Act, a law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, arguing that religious schools would likely have to abide by the law if they wanted to receive money from the tuition program. Both schools have said they would not accept money from the program if it meant changing their policies, including recruiting and admissions practices, according to Maine’s filing.
Representatives from Bangor Christian Schools and Temple Academy did not immediately respond to TIME’s requests for comment on Tuesday.
Now, other religious schools may have to face that question as well. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which operates several Catholic schools in the state, “needs to see what the funding will be and what the details are for receiving it,” Diocese spokesman Dave Guthro said in an email. “The diocese is definitely in favor of giving families access to better educational choices,” he said.
Conley says he expects many religious schools to be reluctant to accept public tuition funding if it means changing their hiring or admissions policies or their curriculum, and he’s now turning his attention to fighting whether the state’s anti-discrimination laws should apply. in religious schools.
Sarah McDaniel, president of the Portland Maine Chapter of the LGBTQ rights group PFLAG, says she thinks the possibility of taxpayers’ money going to schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students “increases the harm some of our most marginalized youth will suffer.” Jenny C. Pizer, the acting Chief Legal Officer of the LGBTQ advocacy group Lambda Legal, says she views the court’s decision as “a perverse ongoing breakdown of what remains of the ‘separation wall’ between church and state erected by the establishment clause. And Rachel Laser, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who is a… short in support of Maine, argues that the decision “forces taxpayers to fund religious education.”
“This nation was built on the promise of religious freedom, which has always prevented the state from using its taxing powers to force citizens to fund religious worship or education,” Laser said. “This decree, far from trampling on religious freedom, tramples on everyone’s religious freedom.”
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