The Supreme Court rules that Maine’s school assistance program must cover religious schools: NPR

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court handed the supporters of the school’s choice a big win.

By a 6-3 vote along ideological lines, the court further opened the door to those seeking taxpayer funding for religious schools.

In its clearest statement to date, the court said that if a state uses taxpayer money to pay students who attend non-religious private schools, it must also use taxpayer funds to pay for religious school attendance. To all intents and purposes, the decision thus invalidates the provisions of 37 state constitutions that prohibit the direct or indirect use of taxpayers’ money in religious schools.

The Maine school system

The court ruling came in a case in Maine, a state so rural that more than half of its school districts do not have a public high school. The state addresses this problem by contracting with neighboring high schools in other districts and private non-sectarian private schools to catch up on the game. Payment is the average cost of public school tuition, just over $ 11,000.

Two families contested the funding system arguing that the state should also pay their children’s tuition in private religious schools where the curriculum is “biblically based” with religion “integrated in all content areas”.

The Supreme Court approved on Tuesday. Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that when the state pays tuition for students in non-sectarian private schools, but not religious schools, “this is discrimination against religion.”

The chief of justice offered some suggestions on how to comply with the court’s ruling, including creating a state boarding school for children living away from public high schools or offering distance learning instead or building more public high schools.

Consequences of the opinion

In an interview with NPR, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey paled at those suggestions Tuesday. “I don’t know to what extent those suggestions were reasonable,” he said, noting that opening a college “frankly may not be consistent with what’s actually practicable for your middle working-class state.”

The three dissenters on the court cited these issues as the real reason why the Supreme Court has so far allowed what it called “a game of joints” between the Constitution’s prohibition on the state institution of religion and its guarantee of freedom. exercise of religion.

Writing for dissidents, Judge Stephen Breyer noted that in previous rulings, the court has said it asserts May Establish state-paid tuition voucher programs that allow parents to send their children to parish schools. “The key word is May“He said.” We have never previously stated what the court holds today, which is that a state must use state funds “to do so.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor adds: “Today the court takes us to a place where the separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation”.

Only one other state, Vermont, has a program like Maine’s. But the court’s decision could open greater benefits to religious schools in many other states, including states with constitutions that ban state aid to religious schools.

More importantly, the decision could spur a push by some private religious schools to seek public funding such as charter schools. Until now, charter schools have been considered public schools and religious schools were not eligible for charter status, according to University of Michigan law and religion professor Frank Ravitch. But now, some in the school selection movement are trying to change that by going to court to challenge the exclusion of religious schools from statute status.

Notre Dame Law Professor Richard Garnett says charter schools “are a gray area …. I am genuinely curious to see how charter school law develops and if we get to a point where a charter school can be as … religiously imbued as is a parish school “.

What Maine can do

As for Maine, it faces a dilemma. The state legislature will not return to work until September, too late to adopt an alternative system to educate its students from more rural areas. The 4,800 students with state fees paid at independent non-religious academies could be reallocated to public schools elsewhere. But that would leave academies, many of which have a long history in their districts, without students. About 80 to 95 percent of students in these academies are paid by the state, according to Maine officials. So it is possible that academies become charter schools, and thus part of the public school system.

Alternatively, the state legislature could decide to pay tuition for students attending religious schools. But that would likely cause other legal problems. The religious schools at the center of Tuesday’s case are proud to instill religious views in students; for example, they do not accept children of other faiths, gay students, gay teachers or children of gay parents. It is unclear whether their resume is consistent with the state curriculum. All of this would put those schools at odds with state laws. Nor is it clear whether any of the schools actually want to be included in the state’s tuition program, especially if, as is almost certain, bargaining with the state involves constraints. The lawsuit before the Supreme Court was not brought by the schools, but by two pairs of parents.

However, University of Pennsylvania law professor Marci Hamilton says she doesn’t see the Supreme Court stop there because it has “a more theocratic than a secular point of view.”

“I think the Supreme Court is definitely on a trajectory” and “the inevitable conclusion is that what they are saying is that it is unconstitutional to deny religious schools the same funding that public schools get.”