Redistributive policy

U.S. Supreme Court rules against Maine policy barring students in a student aid program from using their aid to attend ‘sectarian’ schools

The The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 on Tuesday that Maine’s regulation prohibiting students in a student aid program from using their funds to attend “cult” schools violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

“Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program works to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious practice,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the June 21 decision in Carson v. makin.

He added that “a neutral benefit program in which public funds are disbursed to religious organizations through independent choices of private benefit recipients does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

“Maine’s decision to continue to exclude religious schools from its tuition assistance program … thus promotes a stricter separation of church and state than the federal Constitution requires.”

Roberts noted that Maine “pays tuition for some students in private schools – as long as the schools are not religious. This is discrimination against religion. A state’s anti-establishment interest does not justify laws that exclude certain members of the community from an otherwise generally available public good because of their religious exercise. »

Having chosen to fund private schools through its aid program, Roberts said Maine cannot disqualify certain private schools just because they are religious.

The case was brought by the Carson family, consisting of parents Amy and David and their daughter Olivia, who reside in Glenburn, Maine. Because Glenburn does not have a public school system, families with school-aged children are eligible for a school choice program that pays tuition in public or non-denominational schools.

About 5,000 Maine students are eligible for this program, which excludes private schools that are “associated with a particular faith or belief system and that, in addition to teaching academic subjects, promote the faith or belief system. belief system with which they are associated and/or presents the material taught through the prism of that faith”, which Maine considers “sectarian”.

Bangor Christian Schools, a K-12 institution in the adjacent town of Bangor, is where the Carson parents attended. However, since Christian schools in Bangor require Bible study, they do not qualify for the city’s tuition program, therefore Olivia’s tuition must be paid for by the Carsons.

In 2018, the Carsons and two other Maine families who wanted to send their children to “cult” schools filed a lawsuit.

Other recent views on free exercise and equal protection were cited in Carson v. makin.

A state scholarship program that excluded religious institutions was dismissed by the court in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue in June 2020 as a violation of the free exercise clause.

In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, the court determined in 2017 that a church-owned playground may be eligible for a public benefit program.

On Tuesday, Justices Stephen Breyer, who was joined by Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, who also issued a dissenting opinion, disagreed with the decision.

Breyer argued that the interpretation of the First Amendment put forward by the majority opinion would defeat its “general purpose”, which he said is “to enable an American society with practitioners of more than 100 different religions , and those who practice no religion at all, to live together without serious risk of social divisions based on religion”.

He also argued that Maine “is excluding the schools from its tuition program not because of the religious nature of the schools, but because the schools will use the funds to teach and promote religious ideals.”

“State funding of religious activity risks provoking the religion-based social conflict that the religion clauses were meant to prevent. And, unlike the circumstances present in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza, it is religious activity, not religious labels, that is at the heart of this case,” Breyer argued.

Ashley McGuire, senior fellow at the Catholic Association, called the majority opinion “a further blow to sectarian and arcane anti-Catholic laws. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that parents want and deserve better school choices for their children. Religious families, and even families who are not religious but see the value of faith-based schools, should not be excluded from programs that help parents make the best educational choice for their children. Maine’s law and others like it particularly hurt low-income children who suffer the most in failing schools. Today’s victory helps end anti-religious discrimination and expands the school choices badly needed by low-income families.

Kelly Shackelford, president of the First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom law firm, said, “We are delighted that the Court has affirmed once again that religious discrimination will not be tolerated in this country. Parents in Maine and across the country can now choose the best education for their children without fear of government retaliation.

The declaration of the Second Vatican Council of 1965 on Christian education, Gravissimum educationisstated that parents “must enjoy real freedom in choosing their schools”.

“Consequently, public authorities, which have an obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must ensure, in their concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their needs. to their conscience the schools they want for their children.

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