Supreme Court skeptical of exclusion of public funds for religious education

A family looks at the United States Supreme Court building as decisions are expected to be rendered today in Washington, DC, the United States, June 25, 2021.

Ken Cedeno | Reuters

On Wednesday, the conservative Supreme Court majority appeared willing to expand the scope of public funding for religious education as they questioned whether a public program discriminated on the basis of religious belief.

The nine judges heard oral arguments in Carson v. Makin, a case centered on the Maine rule banning the use of a tuition assistance program for schools that teach “sectarian” religious content.

Two Christian families dispute this requirement, arguing that it is an unconstitutional form of religious discrimination. They want Maine’s schooling program to cover them by sending their children to schools that teach Bible education and discriminate against gays and other groups.

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The Supreme Court is called upon to rule on whether the non-denominational provision of Maine’s school curriculum violates the Constitution.

Samuel Alito, one of six justices appointed to the High Court by a Republican president, asked a lawyer in Maine at length whether the education program discriminated against certain religious beliefs.

“You discriminate between religions based on their beliefs, don’t you? Alito asked after hypothesizing the religious practices of two schools.

“It is the beliefs of the two religions that determine whether or not their schools will receive the funds. And we have said that this is the most fundamental violation of the religious clauses of the First Amendment, for the government to draw distinctions between religions based on their doctrine, ”Alito said.

The Maine attorney responded that only schools that instill religion in the classroom would be excluded from the school curriculum.

Brett Kavanaugh, one of three judges appointed by former President Donald Trump, asked whether the state discriminates against religion by prioritizing secular education over sectarian schools.

“when it says you can use [the public funds] for a secular private school but not a Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim school [school] … You say it’s okay anyway, ”Kavanaugh said.

“What we’re trying to achieve are schools that are religiously neutral,” replied the Maine lawyer. “What we want is religious neutrality.”

The latest clash over the separation of church and state follows the 2020 Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, when the court ruled 5-4 that a Montana scholarship program that gave funds to religious schools was constitutionally protected.

If a state decides to offer private education grant programs, then “it cannot disqualify some private schools just because they are religious,” Roberts wrote for the majority opinion in the case.

In Carson, Maine argues that a crucial distinction is whether schools provide education based on religion, rather than simply being a religious school that otherwise does not inculcate sectarian teachings.

“By excluding sectarian schools, Maine refuses to fund explicitly religious activities that are incompatible with free public education,” state attorneys told the High Court.

A family lawyer told judges on Wednesday that whether the exclusion is based on a school’s religious status or its religious teachings, “it is discrimination based on religion, and anyway, it is unconstitutional.” .

Some rural areas of Maine do not have public high schools. The Tuition Assistance Program allows public funds to be used to allow students to attend certain private schools, some of which are located out of state.

“States should not be allowed to withhold an education benefit otherwise available simply because a student would make the private and independent choice to use that benefit to procure an education that includes religious instruction,” said assert the lawyers of the Christian families in their offer for the high court to take up the case.

The lower courts sided with Maine. “There is no doubt that Maine can guarantee that such public education is secular,” wrote a federal appeals court in its October 2020 opinion.

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