The Supreme Court protects private religious schools

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On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued an important ruling on Carson v. Makin and protected private religious institutions from a discriminatory tuition assistance program in the state of Maine.

Carson v. Makin

In Maine, some children live in areas without public schools. Therefore, the state had a tuition program that provided funding for people who attended high schools in other districts or at “approved” private schools. To qualify for such funding, a school had to be “nonsectarian.” Specifically, the sectarian exclusion in the state’s tuition assistance program provided that “[a] private school may be approved for the receipt of public funds for tuition purposes only if it. . . . [i]s a nonsectarian school in accordance with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Several parents sought tuition assistance to send their children to religious secondary schools. The Carsons’ sought assistance to send their children to Bangor Christian School, a private, nonprofit, and approved school in Maine. Bangor is a “sectarian” school “instilling a Biblical worldview in its students” and “intertwin[ing]” religious instruction with its curriculum.”

The Nelsons sought assistance to send their children to Temple Academy, a fully accredited school that “aligns with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Temple is a “sectarian” school, operates from “a thoroughly Christian and Biblical world view,” and provides a “biblically-integrated education.”

The state of Maine denied their requests. As a result, the parents sued the state on various constitutional grounds. The case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, which was tasked with deciding whether the restriction violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, held that it did. Specifically, the court stated:

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions. In particular, we have repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits.

In rendering its decision, the court relied on two prior decisions, including Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer and Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, where it rejected various state efforts to “withhold otherwise available public benefits from religious organizations.”

Specifically, the court held:

The “unremarkable” principles applied in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza suffice to resolve this case. Maine offers its citizens a benefit: tuition assistance payments for any family whose school district does not provide a public secondary school. Just like the wide range of nonprofit organizations eligible to receive playground resurfacing grants in Trinity Lutheran, a wide range of private schools are eligible to receive Maine tuition assistance payments here. And like the daycare center in Trinity Lutheran, BCS and Temple Academy are disqualified from this generally available benefit “solely because of their religious character.” 582 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 10). By “condition[ing] the availability of benefits” in that manner, Maine’s tuition assistance program—like the program in Trinity Lutheran—“effectively penalizes the free exercise” of religion. Ibid. (quoting McDaniel, 435 U. S., at 626 (plurality opinion)).

According to the court, a law that operates in such a manner must be subjected to “the strictest scrutiny,” which Maine’s law/policy could not satisfy.

As a matter of fact, the court also rejected Maine’s Establishment Clause argument, noting that, “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.” Here, Maine paid tuition for some students at private schools so long as the schools were not religious. This, according to the court, was discrimination against religion.

The court’s decision is important and protects religious private institutions. While some might argue that the court’s decision will compel Maine (or other states) to fund religious institutions, such a reading would be erroneous. The court specifically provided various options that Maine could implement to alleviate these concerns. However, once Maine began funding private institutions, it could not disqualify some private schools solely because they were religious.

In so ruling, the court, fortunately, protected private religious institutions.

Mr. Hakim is an attorney and columnist. His articles have been published in The Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, American Thinker, and other online publications. He is also a regular guest on OANN’s Tipping Point, and has appeared on Newsmax, The Dave Weinbaum Show, and Real America’s Voice. 

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