The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard oral arguments on Wednesday to challenge a scholarship program in the state of Maine in a case involving religious liberty and discrimination. The case, Carson v. Makin, contends that a scholarship program in Maine pays for students to attend private schools but does not provide funding for schools that include religious instruction.
According to the SCOTUS Blog, the case of Carson v. Makin is predicated on the idea that all school-aged children should have an opportunity to receive a free public education. However, some school districts in Maine broker deals with private or alternative public schools to take students when they are overloaded. SCOTUS Blog stated the following: “However, the Maine program only allows tuition payments to go to private schools that are ‘nonsectarian’ – that is, schools that do not provide religious instruction.”
This case comes on the heels of a 2017 ruling, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which established that the free exercise clause of the Constitution prohibited governmental entities from withholding funding or benefits from a religious institution if it is handily available to the public already. The basis of Carson v. Makin reportedly asserts that Maine’s student tuition assistance program is in violation of the free exercise clause, according to the Washington Examiner.
During the oral arguments, the Washington Examiner also reported that Justice Brett Kavanaugh pressured Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the opposing counsel, to explain how depriving funding to a religious institution was not religious discrimination:
“Mr. Stewart, you’re suggesting that with, say, two neighbors … in Maine … there’s not a public school available, and the first neighbor says, ‘We’re going to send our child, children, to secular private school.’ They get the benefit. The next-door neighbor says, ‘Well, we want to send our children to a religious private school,’ and they’re not going to get the benefit. … That’s just discrimination on the basis of religion right there … at the neighborhood level.”
According to a tweet posted by the American Atheists, a 55-year-old organization dedicated to advocating for the separation of church and religion from government on all levels, the potential SCOTUS ruling to divert funding to religious schools is “an attack on everyone’s freedom of religion.” Interestingly enough, the term “separation of church and state” is stated nowhere in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights. In fact, the term itself originated from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists association in 1802, which has since been taken out of context in numerous legal cases over the past two centuries.
The SCOTUS ruling on Carson v. Makin is expected to broadly affect the way in which schools handle tuition assistance, potentially giving parents and students diverse school choice options, and allowing a broader group of Americans to access private or religious educational institutions.