Supreme Court: Maine Religious Schools May Obtain Tuition Assistance

As the Supreme Court declared this week, it is not possible for Maine to exclude religious schools from a program that provides financial help for private education, a ruling that would allow religious groups to more easily access public funds.

The 6-3 decision might rekindle interest in school choice programs in the 18 states that have not yet allocated government funds to religiously affiliated private institutions of higher learning so far. Beyond Maine, the immediate impact of the court’s decision would most likely be felt in Vermont, which runs a similar program to Maine’s.

In a majority opinion written for the conservative side of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the program breaches the Constitution’s safeguards for religious liberty.  “Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its’ otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of how the benefit and restrictions are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise,” Roberts wrote. A disagreement was voiced by the court’s three members.

The Supreme Court’s judgment is the latest in a long line of rulings that have supported religious discrimination claims. After a football game, a coach claims he has a First Amendment right to pray in the middle of the field.

Those who reside in rural Maine communities that don’t have public schools have the option of receiving public funds to pay for their children’s education at a private or public school of their choice. Religious institutions were left out of the scheme.

Student residents in districts with public schools or districts that contract with another public system are ineligible for the program.

According to the parents who objected, excluding religious schools from public schools breaches their constitutional right to religious freedom. Teachers’ unions and school boards argue that governments may restrict public funding for private education without violating religious liberties.

At the Supreme Court today, Michael Bindas, a libertarian lawyer who represented the parents in the case, stated that “there is just no foundation for this concept that the government may select out and prohibit religious alternatives.”

Forcing “taxpayers to support religious instruction,” “cloaking” “this attack on our Constitution” in non-discrimination legislation, Rachel Laser, the CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said.

Parents in Bangor and Waterville, Maine, sued in federal court to be permitted to utilize public money to pay for their children’s education in Christian schools. They haven’t decided whether they’ll take public cash, according to court documents from Bangor Christian School and Temple Academy.

The Bangor school has said that it would not employ or enroll transgender students or faculty members. The records of both schools show that none of the institutions employs any instructors who identify as homosexual or lesbian.

The Supreme Court justices held 5-4 that states must provide religious schools the same access to public funds as other private schools, upholding the Montana scholarship program that had mostly benefited students at religious institutions.

State legislatures don’t have to approve the use of public funds for private education, as the court found in that instance. Once such programs are established, however, they will not be able to exclude religious schools from participation.

A federal appeals court in Washington, DC sustained the Maine program following that verdict, finding that the state’s refusal to authorize the use of public funds for religious teaching did not violate anyone’s constitutional rights.

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