Supreme Court rejects Maine ban on helping religious schools

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from a state tuition program. The ruling, from a court that has become exceptionally responsive to complaints from individuals and religious groups in various settings, was the latest in a series of rulings requiring the government to help religious institutions on the same terms as other private organizations.

The vote was 6-3, with the court’s three liberal justices dissenting.

The case, Carson v. Makin, #20-1088, grew out of an unusual program in Maine, which forces rural communities without public high schools to organize the education of their young residents in two ways. They can sign contracts with nearby public schools, or they can pay tuition at a private school chosen by the parents as long as it is, in the words of state law, ” a non-sectarian school in accordance with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution”. .”

Two Maine families who send or want to send their children to religious schools challenged the law, saying it violated their right to freely exercise their faith.

One of the schools involved in the case, Temple Academy in Waterville, Maine, says it expects its teachers to “incorporate biblical principles into their teaching in every subject” and teach students “to spread the word of Christianity”. The other, Bangor Christian Schools, says it seeks to develop “within each student a Christian worldview and a Christian philosophy of life”.

Both schools “frankly admit that they discriminate against gay people, transgender people and non-Christians,” Maine said. The Supreme Court brief said.

The case was broadly similar to the Montana case decided by the court in 2020, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. In that case, the court ruled that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in the Montana case, said a provision in the state Constitution prohibiting aid to church-run schools went against the runs counter to the US Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion by discriminating against religious people. and schools.

“A state does not need to subsidize private education,” the chief justice wrote. “But once a state decides to do that, it can’t disqualify certain private schools just because they’re religious.”

But Montana’s decision focused on the schools’ religious status, not their curriculum. There can be a difference, Chief Justice Roberts said, between an institution’s religious identity and its conduct.

“We recognize the point,” he wrote, “but need not examine it here.”

The new Maine case resolved that open question.

The Supreme Court has long held that states can choose to provide aid to religious schools as well as other private schools. The question in the Montana and Maine cases was the reverse: Can states refuse to provide such aid if it is made available to other private schools?

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