The U.S. Supreme Court this week declined to review a case involving parents in Maryland who sought to force taxpayers to foot the bill for their child’s education at a private, religious school. The high court’s refusal to hear M.L. v. Smith leaves in place a lower court opinion that protects church-state separation.
Akiva and Shani Leiman – the parents of a child with special needs who is known in court documents as M.L. – were trying to compel Montgomery County Public Schools to cover the cost of M.L.’s tuition at a Jewish school. The Leimans conceded that the public school system could provide an appropriate education for children with disabilities like M.L.’s, but they also wanted M.L. to receive the religious and cultural lessons they believe he needs in order to live in their Orthodox Jewish community.
In August, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the county school system was not required to provide or fund religious instruction.
The school district “provided M.L. with equal access to an education, on the same basis as it provides to all other students with disabilities,” wrote Judge G. Steven Agee in an opinion for the court. “It does not provide religious and cultural instruction to its students with or without disabilities and has no duty under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) to administer such instruction to M.L.”
Taxpayers who fund the public school system should not be compelled to also fund religious schools.
Americans United had filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 4th Circuit that noted that all special-needs children have the right to a quality public education, but none has the right to taxpayer-funded religious instruction. Our brief was joined by several civil rights and religious organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, People For the American Way Foundation, the Union for Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism.
“[F]or many parents, raising children to share in their family’s religious beliefs and traditions is a sacred duty. But it is not a duty of the state,” our brief explained. “The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses are premised on the principle that government must be neutral in religious matters so that individuals remain free to practice their faith, or not, as they see fit. Thus, the state may not (assume) the authority to enforce religious rules, provide religious instruction, or decide what religious observances are appropriate for schoolchildren. Those decisions are instead constitutionally committed to individuals, families, and their houses of worship.”
Back in August, AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee lauded the 4th Circuit’s opinion: “The Montgomery County public schools are willing and able to provide an appropriate education for the Leimans’ son. The family is free to seek private religious instruction for their child, but they’re not entitled to have taxpayers cover the cost.”
Religious instruction for children is a personal decision that every family has the right to make. At the same time, taxpayers who fund the public school system should not be compelled to also fund religious schools. The 4th Circuit’s decision protects religious freedom for all, and we’re glad the Supreme Court allowed that decision to stand.