The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states could not prohibit students from using state aid to attend private schools which include religious instruction. This ruling is the latest in a long line of decisions on whether government funds can be given directly or indirectly to organizations with ties to religious institutions. In the case of Carson v. Makin, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3.
Some Maine school districts do not operate secondary schools due to the population in a given area. Some school districts make deals with other public schools or even private schools to take their students. On the other hand, some school districts allow students to choose their own public or private schools and pay the tuition.
Chief Justice John Roberts issued the majority opinion writing that “Maine’s tuition assistance program—like the program in Trinity Lutheran—’effectively penalizes the free exercise’ of religion.”
Roberts added, “a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause.”
What came into question was a specific provision in the program which only allows tuition payments to go to private schools which are ”nonsectarian,” or do not offer religious instruction. The court in turn had to weigh whether this program violated the religion clauses and equal protection clause in the United States Constitution.
Troy and Angela Nelson, one of the two families at the center of the case, wanted to send their son to Temple Academy, a Christian school in Waterville, ME, but would not be able to afford it without the tuition-assistance program from the district.
The Supreme Court has recently heard a number of cases which have similar implications. In 2017, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer prohibited the government from denying a church the same benefit available to others because of its religious status.
Another Case, 2020’s Espinoza v. The Montana Department of Revenue found states that subsidize private education cannot stop public funds from going to a school based on religious status.
In the case of Carson v. Makin, the plaintiffs argued the state’s tuition-assistance program violated the Constitution because it was not neutral toward religion. They also brought up the gray area it creates because it required state officials to make “judgement calls” on what actually constitutes religious instruction in a school.
Maine defended the unique nature of the program meant to provide students without a secondary school in their district the opportunity to receive the same level of education they would in public school. The state explained that “every child has access to a free public education – i.e., a religiously-neutral education where subject matter is not taught through the lens of any particular faith.”