WASHINGTON ( Associated Press) – The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Maine could not exclude religious schools from a program that provides tuition assistance to private education, a decision that could facilitate religious organizations ‘access to taxpayers’ money.
The 6-3 outcome could fuel renewed pressure on school choice programs in some of the 18 states that have so far not directed taxpayer money to private, religious education. The most immediate effect of the court’s ruling outside Maine is likely to be felt alongside Vermont, which has a similar program.
The decision is the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that have favored religion-based discrimination claims. The court separately weighs the case of a soccer coach who says he has a first amendment right to pray immediately after games in midfield.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a Conservative majority that the Maine program violates the Constitution’s protection of religious freedoms.
Maine’s ‘non-sectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the free practice clause of the first amendment. Regardless of how the benefit and limitation is described, the program works to identify and exclude otherwise qualifying schools based on their religious practice, ”Roberts wrote.
The court’s three liberal judges differed. “This Court continues to tear down the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote.
Judge Stephen Breyer noted in a separate dissent that Maine “wants to provide children in the state with a secular, public education. This desire embodies, to a significant extent, the constitutional need to prevent public money being spent to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion. ”
But Roberts wrote that states are not obligated to subsidize private education. Once they do, however, they can not eliminate religious schools, he wrote, expressing his opinion in a similar case two years ago. “Maine has chosen to allow some parents to direct state tuition payments to private schools; that decision was not ‘forced’, ”Roberts wrote, quoting Sotomayor’s disapproval.
Maine’s attorney general Aaron Frey said in a radio appearance on Tuesday that he was not surprised by the court’s decision, but he felt it was not in line with his reading of the Constitution.
Frey also said the court’s ruling would require a reassessment of how it applies to constitutional law.
Until now, Maine’s exclusion from religious schools has been upheld, Frey said during the appearance on Maine Public. “Honestly, it’s worrying, even though we’ve seen it coming.”
The ideological rift in Tuesday’s decision was also evident during arguments in December, when conservative judges seemed largely unconvinced by Maine’s view that the state was willing to pay for the rough equivalent of a public education but not religious sharpening .
In largely rural Maine, the state allows families living in towns that do not have public schools to receive public tuition dollars to send their children to the public or private school of their choice. The program excluded religious schools.
Students who live in a district with public schools or in a district that contracts with another public system are not eligible for the tuition program.
Parents who challenged the program argued that the exclusion of religious schools violates their religious rights under the Constitution. Teachers’ unions and school boards have said states can impose restrictions on public money for private education without restricting religious freedom.
Michael Bindas, a lawyer at the Libertarian Institute for Justice who argued for the parents at the Supreme Court, said the court made it clear on Tuesday that “there is no basis for this idea that the government is capable of exercising religious options. without and excluding. “
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sharply criticized the court for “forcing taxpayers to fund religious education” and “disguising this attack on our Constitution in the language of non-discrimination.” .
In the Maine case, parents sued in federal court to use state aid to send their children to Christian schools in Bangor and Waterville. The schools involved, Bangor Christian School and Temple Academy, are unsure whether they will accept public funds, according to court applications.
The Bangor school has said it will not hire teachers or allow transgender students. Both schools have said they do not hire gay or lesbian teachers, according to court records.
In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states should give religious schools the same access to public funding that other private schools receive, preserving a Montana scholarship program that has greatly benefited students at religious institutions.
In that case, the court said states do not have to allow public money to be used in private education. But they can not keep religious schools out of such programs once they are created.
But even after that ruling, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Maine program and found that the state violated no one’s constitutional rights by refusing to use taxpayers’ money for religious education. The three-judge panel included retired judge David Souter, who sometimes hears cases in the appellate court.
Most of the judges attended religious schools, and several sent or sent their children to them.