Supreme Court rules Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from state education program is unconstitutional

Supreme Court rules Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from state education program is unconstitutional

Supreme Court rules Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from state education program is unconstitutional

Washington- The Supreme Court said Tuesday that schools that provide religious education cannot be barred from a Maine tuition assistance program available to students in rural areas of the state, finding the state’s requirement that only non-sectarian schools qualify for the program violates the First Amendment.

The court’s decision fell along ideological lines, with the six conservative judges finding Maine’s tuition assistance program was not constitutional and the three liberal judges disagreeing. The Supreme Court overturned a 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding the program.

“The state pays tuition for certain students in private schools – as long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “A state’s anti-establishment interest does not justify laws that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise commonly available public benefit because of their religious practice.”

The court’s ruling, now with a conservative majority of 6-3, is the latest in a growing series of decisions in favor of religious parties. In a 2020 case involving a Montana scholarship program, a court divided 5-4 ruled that states cannot exclude schools from receiving public benefits based solely on their religious status or identity.

The program at issue in the Maine case, Carson v. Makin, allows families living in rural areas with school districts that do not have their own high school to contract with another institution to provide state-funded education. receive to send their children to a public or private school – in Maine or out of state – of their choice. But the state only covers education under the program at schools that are non-sectarian, or schools that do not provide religious instruction or present material through a religious lens.

Maine has nearly 180,000 K-12 students, of which a small fraction, 4,565, are high school students who have attended private schools through an education contract or curriculum.

In 2018, two groups of parents, David and Amy Carson and Troy and Angela Nelson, challenged the program in federal court, arguing that the state unconstitutionally discriminates against the exclusion of religious schools based on religion.

The Carsons wanted to use the school fees to pay for their daughter’s schooling at Bangor Christian School, while the Nelsons wanted to send their son to Temple Academy, which aligns with their religious beliefs. Neither school is eligible for the state program, although it’s unclear whether they would accept the public money.

The 1st Circuit ruled in Maine’s favor, finding that the program does not discriminate based on the religious status of schools, and the parents appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.