High Court: School choice scheme violates free religious exercise

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WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. Supreme Court upheld its view of religious liberty over public benefits by ruling Tuesday, June 21, that a state violated the First Amendment by barring faith-based schools from participating in a program tuition assistance.

In a 6-to-3 opinion, the High Court decided that Maine violated the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion by refusing to include in the state’s elective curriculum schools that teach their religious beliefs. For more than four decades, Maine has excluded denominational schools from a state system that helps families in the many small towns across the state that don’t operate public high schools and the fewest number that don’t. have no elementary schools.

“Maine’s ‘unsectarian’ requirement for its generally available tuition assistance payments violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in Carson v. Makin. “Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program works to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools based on their religious practice.”

The split in the High Court was not unexpected. Joining Roberts in the majority were the Associate Justices generally considered conservative: Clarence Thomas; Samuel Alito; Neil Gorsuch; Brett Kavanaugh; and Amy Coney Barrett. Dissenting were Associate Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who generally make up the liberal wing of the court.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) filed a friend of the court brief in March 2021 that asked the Supreme Court to review a lower court’s decision in favor of the state. He submitted another brief in September last year that urged judges to support parents challenging the religious rule in the Maine program.

“Maine’s attempt to circumvent the Constitution was halted in its tracks today, and rightfully so,” Brent Leatherwood, acting ERLC president, said in a press release. “The judges’ decision here fits exactly with the fundamental nature of religious freedom in our country.

“The Court correctly decided that parents who choose to participate in a program like Maine’s cannot have their constitutional rights restricted simply because they choose to send their children to a religious school,” he said. -he declares. “Similar attempts to restrict free speech have rightly been called ‘abhorrent’ by the Court in previous rulings, and the Maine program can now be added to that infamous list.”

In Maine’s system, districts without schools are required to pay tuition up to a legal limit in a public or private school elsewhere of the parents’ choice. To be eligible for the program, however, private schools must be “non-sectarian,” a category that disqualifies any religious school that promotes the faith with which it is identified.

Mike Nerney, associative mission strategist for the Maine Baptist Association, said the decision “represents a victory for families in Maine.”

“As parents, over the years my wife and I have chosen many educational options (including one of the religious schools at the center of this case) for our children based on what we felt was best at some point in our lives as well as for their individual personal development,” Nerney said in written comments. “In this case, because Maine state funds go directly to families, not to educational institutions, the Court’s decision serves only to support a parent’s right to take educational decisions in the best interest of his children.”

The Supreme Court has “repeatedly held that a state violates the free exercise clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits,” Roberts wrote in the decision that reversed a lower court’s opinion. .

“The state pays tuition for some students in private schools, as long as the schools are not religious,” he wrote. “It’s discrimination against religion.”

The court’s opinion relied heavily on two recent decisions, Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, c. Comer in 2017 and Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue in 2019. In those cases, judges struck down public programs that excluded a church and certain schools because of their “religious character.”

“The ‘unremarkable’ principles applied in Lutheran Trinity and Espinoza will be enough to solve this case,” Roberts wrote. “Although the wording of the Montana and Maine provisions is different, their effect is the same: ‘to disqualify certain private schools’ from funding ‘solely because they are religious.’

Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from its curriculum “promotes a stricter separation of church and state than the federal Constitution requires,” he wrote. “While we wanted to Espinoza, a “State does not need to subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify certain private schools simply because they are religious.

In his dissent, Breyer denied the Lutheran Trinity and Espinoza opinions solve the Maine case.

Maine “excludes schools from its tuition program not because of the religious character of the schools, but because the schools will use the funds to teach and promote religious ideals…(U) unlike the circumstances present in Lutheran Trinity and Espinozait is religious activity, not religious labels, that is at the heart of this case,” Breyer wrote.

Roberts responded to Breyer in the majority opinion by saying that the judges detained in the Lutheran Trinity and Espinoza rulings “that the free exercise clause prohibits discrimination based on religious status. But these decisions never suggested that discrimination based on use is less offensive to the free exercise clause.

He wrote, “Any attempt to give effect to such a distinction by examining whether and how a religious school pursues its educational mission would also raise serious concerns about state entanglement with religion and denominational patronage. (l) Prohibition of discrimination based on status under the Free Exercise Clause is not a license to engage in discrimination based on use.

Southern Baptists Michael and Jonathan Whitehead, a team of father-son attorneys who practice in the Kansas City, Missouri area, represented Maine parents with attorneys from the Institute for Justice and First Liberty Institute . They also helped represent Trinity Lutheran Church in its lawsuit.

Jonathan Whitehead, who is a trustee of the ERLC, described the ruling as “a groundbreaking precedent for equal access to parental choice in education, and we hope it will benefit parents across the country with other programs for school choice”.

“Today the Supreme Court made it clear that equal access means that states cannot discriminate against religious status or use,” he said in a press release. “Free exercise means that religious beliefs and religious actions must be protected.”

Michael Whitehead said: “Justices Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor are willing to allow parents to choose nominally religious schools, but oppose the choice of strongly religious schools.

In a written statement, Kelly Shackelford, president of the First Liberty Institute, called it “a great day for religious liberty in America. We are delighted that the Court has affirmed once again that religious discrimination will not be tolerated in this country.

Meanwhile, hardline church-state separatist leader Rachel Laser accused the Supreme Court of “forcing taxpayers to fund religious education.” The president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a press release, “Far from honoring religious freedom, this decision tramples on everyone’s religious freedom.”

The Boston First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of excluding denominational schools from the Maine curriculum. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) joined the state in defending the program in the High Court during oral arguments in December 2021. In doing so, the DOJ reversed the position held by the Trump administration, which supported parents who had taken legal action.

Maine’s tuition assistance program included denominational schools until a 1980 interpretation by the state’s attorney general led to a change.

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