While many have been focused on the Supreme Court’s decision about abortion, the court just ruled in favor of parents seeking more school choice for their children in the case of Carson v. Makin. The case brought a national focus on the crucial question of religious freedom in the debate over school choice in the U.S.
In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that religious schools cannot be kept from benefiting from state programs that offer aid for parents paying for private education, according to The Associated Press.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority ruling.
“Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Roberts wrote.
“Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.”
The court split along its usual ideological lines with Justices Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor in dissent.
Carson v. Makin revolved around the question of whether a state has the right to restrict students’ access to state-sponsored financial aid programs if those funds were used to attend a private religious school that had religious teaching.
This case was sparked by the state of Maine’s laws that allows students who live in areas without a secondary school to attend private schools using the tax dollars that would have otherwise been spent at a public school.
However, that state tuition aid is only available to schools that are “nonsectarian,” meaning, they do not have religious instruction.
Maine’s tuition aid does not exclude schools that are identified as religious, or have religious ownership. It simply specifies that schools that require religious instruction do not qualify for the tuition program.
A group of parents (collectively the “Carson” side of the case), sued the Maine Department of Education and its commissioner, Pender Makin, saying that the “nonsectarian” requirement for the state financial aid program is a violation of their “First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion,” the Legal Information Institute of Cornell summarized.
“Maine’s sectarian exclusion discriminates based on religion. Like all discrimination based on religion, it should be subjected to strict scrutiny and held unconstitutional, unless Maine can show that it is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest,” Michael Bindus argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Maine’s school tuition assistance program has been around for a very long time and for over a century did allow families to choose sectarian schools for their children.
“For well over a century, parents in Maine could choose ‘sectarian,’ or religious, schools for their children. But in 1980, the state’s Attorney General issued an opinion concluding that including religious choices in parents’ menu of options violated the federal Constitution’s Establishment Clause,” the Institute for Justice, which represented Maine families challenging the state, wrote in high court arguments.
“As a result, the Maine Legislature in 1981 passed the current law that excludes religious schools from the tuitioning system—a law prohibiting towns from paying tuition to any “sectarian” school, which the state defines as a school that provides religious instruction. Maine’s law thus singles out families who choose religious schools, and only those families, for discrimination,”
Attorneys for Maine, however, argued that the state’s tuition program does not discriminate but carries out the state’s obligation to provide “religiously neutral” education.
“Maine has determined that, as a matter of public policy, public education should be religiously neutral. This is entirely consistent with this Court’s holdings that public schools must not inculcate religion and should instead promote tolerance of divergent religious views,” Christopher Taub argued on Makin’s behalf.
Conservative social media reaction on the case was jubilant.
Eric Schmitt, Attorney General of Missouri, tweeted how this decision is a “big win for religious liberty.”
Big win for religious liberty at SCOTUS today – we filed an amicus brief in Carson v. Makin, which was decided 6-3 in a favorable decision this morning by the Court. pic.twitter.com/DNbTxFyOQT
— Attorney General Eric Schmitt (@AGEricSchmitt) June 21, 2022
The Cato Institute tweeted that this new decision adds to the long line of decisions that the court has been making concerning religion and schools.
BREAKING: The SCOTUS decision in Carson v. Makin is an important step forward in a now long line of rulings that stress that government cannot exclude religious schooling from programs based on the free choices of families.
— Cato Institute (@CatoInstitute) June 21, 2022
The justices in dissent, however, said they are concerned about the direction the court is headed.
“With growing concern for where this Court will lead us next, I respectfully dissent,” Justice Sotomayor wrote in the dissent.
However, the court has ruled that Maine was actually discriminating against religion.
“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. “A State’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”