WASHINGTON (CNS) — In a June 21 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that a Maine tuition assistance program that excluded religious schools violated the Constitution’s free exercise clause.
The opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said: “A state need not subsidize private education, but once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify certain schools. private only because they are religious.”
He also said that the court’s decision in Carson v. Makin stemmed from a principle in its two previous decisions, in particular the 2020 opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. In that case, the court said the state of Montana could not prevent religious schools from receiving scholarships funded by tax credits under its school choice program.
The Maine case went further, asking whether the state could prevent students from using public funds to attend schools that provide religious instruction.
Roberts pointed out that a neutral benefits program that provides public funds to religious organizations through independent choices of recipients of those benefits does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
During oral arguments last December in the case, several judges criticized the state’s decision-making process in determining how religious a school was in order to decide whether or not the school could participate in the program specifically for rural communities.
Schools deemed to have the potential to “infuse” religion into classrooms were excluded while other schools deemed by the state school board to be the “rough equivalent” of public – or religiously neutral – schools could participate in the schooling program.
“It’s doctrine-based discrimination. It’s unconstitutional,” Roberts said at the time, which he essentially reiterated in his opinion.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in his dissent, pointed out that the court had “never before held” what it says today, “that a state must (and cannot) use public funds to pay religious education under a tuition program designed to ensure the provision of free public education throughout the State.”
Breyer, joined by Judge Elena Kagan and in part by Judge Sonia Sotomayor, said the ruling pays more attention to the free exercise clause and not enough to the establishment clause of the Constitution.
Nichole Garnett, a law professor at Notre Dame Law School, who focuses on education policy, called the decision “a victory both for religious freedom and for American schoolchildren.”
“The majority makes it clear, once again, that when government makes a benefit available to private institutions, it must treat religious institutions – including faith-based schools – fairly and equitably,” she said. said in a June 21 statement.
She also noted that the opinion cements the constitutional principle that “requires government neutrality – and prohibits hostility – toward believers and religious institutions.”
Garnett, signed an amicus curiae brief in the Maine case submitted by Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative on behalf of elementary and secondary schools from three religious traditions: Catholic (Partnership for Inner-City Education), Islamic (Council of Islamic Schools in North America) and Jewish (National Council of Young Israel).
Noting how the decision could impact school choice programs, she said it “removes a major barrier to the expansion of parental choice in the United States by clarifying that when states enact choice, they must allow parents to choose denominational schools for their children.”
“Denominational schools have a long and proven track record of providing a high quality education, especially for our most disadvantaged children, and policies that exclude them from private school choice programs are both unconstitutional and reckless,” she added.
Becket, a religious freedom law firm, also filed an amicus brief in the case, noting that states have a long history of excluding religious institutions from public benefits, often in part because of the amendments. Blaine embraced a time of anti-Catholic sentiment in the late 19th century.
The Blaine Amendment to prohibit direct government aid to educational institutions that have a religious affiliation was first proposed in Congress in 1875 by Representative James G. Blaine of Maine.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the Committee on Religious Liberty of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and Bishop Thomas A. Daly of Spokane, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Catholic Education, issued a statement in response to the Court’s decision.
In their statement, Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Daly said, “The Supreme Court has rightly held that the Constitution not only protects the right to be religious but also law religious. This common-sense result reflects the essence of Catholic education. Additionally, the Court again affirmed that states cannot exclude religious schools from generally available public benefits based on their religious affiliation or practice. In our pluralistic society, it is vital that all people of faith can participate in publicly available programs and thus contribute to the common good.
The bishops’ statement also noted that “it is appropriate that this decision relates to a program in Maine, the state in which James G. Blaine served as a senator in 1875 when he worked for the passage of the amendment.” Blaine – a cynically anti-Catholic measure. to amend the US Constitution to ensure that no public assistance is provided to “sectarian” schools. While his efforts were narrowly defeated, the Blaine Amendments were eventually passed in one form or another by 37 states. These laws have nothing to do with government neutrality toward religion. Rather, they are expressions of hostility towards Catholics. We are grateful to the Supreme Court for continuing to rebuke this harmful legacy. »
The USCCB filed a amicus curiae short of support for the petitioners.