The Supreme Court has expanded parents’ and students’ rights to use government subsidies to attend religious schools, overturning a Maine program that prohibited the use of local government funds to pay tuition at primary and secondary schools that provide religious instruction.
Ruling 6-3 The high court ruled on Tuesday that prohibiting parents from using such subsidies for schools that engage in religious instruction violated students’ and their parents’ religious freedom rights.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the case, which clearly divided the court along ideological lines. Roberts argued that the state’s desire to avoid concerns about religious establishment did not justify a policy that effectively barred parents from directing funding to religious schools.
“The Establishment Clause is not violated by a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients,” Roberts wrote. “A state’s anti-establishment interest does not justify legislation that excludes some members of the community from an otherwise widely available public benefit due to their religious practice.”
Local governments that lack the population to run schools at a certain grade level typically pay for students to be educated at public or private schools of their choice under the Maine “tuitioning” program that the court struck down on Tuesday. However, in order to avoid government funds being used for religious purposes, the program has refused to pay for religious education schools since 1981.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in a 2020 decision on a Montana educational aid program that states could not exclude families or schools from student aid programs simply because the schools were supported by religious institutions.
That decision, however, left open the question of whether states could prohibit the use of their funds for explicitly religious or “sectarian” classes.
However, in the case decided on Tuesday, Roberts explicitly rejected Maine’s arguments that it was only targeting religious instruction and not whether or not a school was run by a religious group.
“Any attempt to put such a distinction into practice by scrutinizing whether and how a religious school pursues its educational mission would also raise serious concerns about state entanglement with religion and denominational favoritism,” the report says.
In one of his final dissenting opinions before retiring, Justice Stephen Breyer stated that the court appears to have lost all interest in enforcing the Constitution’s prohibition on religious establishment.
“The First Amendment begins by prohibiting the government from ‘making [any] law respecting a religious establishment.’ It then prohibits them from passing any legislation “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Today, the Court pays almost no attention to the words in the first Clause while focusing almost entirely on the words in the second “Breyer penned a letter.
Breyer also suggested that the court’s decision was merely a stepping stone toward requiring all communities to use taxpayer funds to pay for religious schooling.
“We have never previously held what the Court holds today, namely, that a State must (not may) use state funds to pay for religious education as part of a tuition program designed to ensure the provision of free statewide public school education,” Breyer wrote.
“What happens once ‘may’ becomes ‘must’? Does that transformation mean that a school district that pays for public schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools?” Breyer asked. “Does it mean that school districts that give vouchers for use at charter schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to give their children a religious education?”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor also dissenting, citing a series of decisions that she sees as bringing the government closer to direct sponsorship of religious activity.
“This Court continues to demolish the wall that the Framers fought to build,” Sotomayor warned. “This Court is irrational in holding that the Free Exercise Clause prohibits Maine from giving money to parents to fund the only type of education that the State may provide in accordance with the Establishment Clause: a religiously neutral education. Nothing in the Constitution requires the outcome we have today.”