Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s ultraconservative slant, there was never much hope that the high court would rule in favor of the state of Maine in a private-school funding case called Carson v. Makin. But it was still a blow when the decision was released June 21.
The legal controversy started in rural areas of Maine where several small towns don’t operate public high schools. For years, Maine has had a program that allows students to attend private schools partly at state expense – provided those schools offer an education comparable to what’s on offer in public schools. This means secular education, and private religious schools were not eligible to take part in the program while non-sectarian schools were.
Backed by a pro-voucher group called the Institute for Justice, parents demanded the right to receive taxpayer support for the religious education they favored. In a decision drafted by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, the court, by a 6-3 vote, ruled in favor of the parents.
Americans United blasted the decision.
“The ultraconservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court continues to redefine the constitutional promise of religious freedom for all as religious privilege for a select few,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United in a statement to the media.
“The court is forcing taxpayers to fund religious education,” Laser continued. “This nation was built on the promise of religious freedom, which has always prevented the state from using its taxing power to force citizens to fund religious worship or education. Here, the court has violated that founding principle by requiring Maine to tax citizens to fund religious schools. Far from honoring religious freedom, this decision tramples the religious freedom of everyone. Worse, the court has opened the door to government-enforced tithing, an invitation religious extremists will not ignore.”
As the case progressed through the federal courts, Americans United noted that some of the religious schools in Maine engage in rank forms of discrimination. As Church & State reported in October, two of the schools that demanded access to the program – Bangor Christian Schools and Temple Academy in Waterville, offer education based on fundamentalist Christian precepts.
Neither school will hire members of the LGBTQ community as staff members or admit them as students. Neither one offers education for students with special needs.
Temple Academy, which is run by a fundamentalist church, makes its perspective clear in its student handbook.
“In order to maintain the Evangelical philosophy of our school, at least one parent/guardian should be born-again and in regular attendance at a Bible-believing church as we are committed to working with Christian families,” it states. “No student will be enrolled whose parents do not understand and support our Christian philosophy, goals, and standards and/or are unwilling to have their children trained in accordance with these ideals. Parents should understand that we seek to lead every student to a personal, saving knowledge of Christ. Students from homes with serious differences with the school’s biblical basis and/or its doctrines will not be accepted at Temple Academy.”
The school requires a course in the Bible (and mandates that all students own a King James version) and maintains a strict dress code to promote “modesty.” A long list of reading material is banned from the institution.
“No unapproved magazines or books are to be brought to school. This means anything relating to vampires or ware-wolves [sic] or ‘dark’ related materials etc. … The rule of thumb is this: Could Jesus read this book with you?” Students are also forbidden to possess on campus “any form of secular rock or heavy metal music or paraphernalia,” asserts the school’s handbook.
Bangor Christian Schools, which is run by Crosspoint Church, takes a similar approach. The school’s website states, “Our vision is for students to grow in their faith, have a positive impact in their world for Christ and actively serve in their churches and communities. We want them to experience God’s love in a personal way so that they are truly prepared for life.”
Bangor Christian holds weekly chapel services and Bible studies, and each day begins with student-led prayer. On its website, the school describes its “Philosophy of Education” in conservative evangelical terms: “We believe that God is the creator of all things and His Word is the final authority in all matters. We believe that His desire is for all people to know Him and the world He created. Following God’s mandate for education in Psalm 78:5,6 and Deuteronomy 6:5-9, we assist families in educating their children with a Biblical worldview. Every facet of our program focuses on understanding God, His creation, and His purpose for humanity, leading students to accept their responsibility to each. … Bangor Christian Schools prepares students to be responsible citizens who fulfill their God-given potential.”
These blatantly religious approaches should have made the schools ineligible for state funding, Laser said.
“The court’s ultraconservative bloc argued that refusing to tax citizens to fund religion is ‘discrimination against religion,’” added Laser. “It’s nothing less than gaslighting to cloak this assault on our Constitution in the language of non-discrimination. If the conservative justices were concerned with discrimination, they would not have issued this opinion because it forces taxpayers to fund two religious schools that discriminate against LGBTQ families, one barring their admission and the other forcing them to undergo ‘counseling’ and renounce their sexual orientation or gender identity, or be expelled. One school’s stated educational objective is to ‘refute the teachings of the Islamic religion with the truth of God’s word’ – and now Muslim taxpayers will be forced to fund that school.”
In his lead opinion, Roberts, who was joined by Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh, Neil M. Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett, Samuel A. Alito and Clarence M. Thomas, argued that Maine’s failure to subsidize the religious schools violated the religious freedom of the parents.
“Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Roberts wrote. “Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent that was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan, labeled the ruling a serious departure from America’s traditions. She referred to a similar 2017 case where the court upheld taxpayer aid to a church to resurface a playground.
“This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Sotomayor wrote. “In 2017, I feared that the Court was ‘lead[ing] us … to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.’ … Today, the Court leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.”
She concluded, “With growing concern for where this Court will lead us next, I respectfully dissent.”
Roberts insisted that nothing in the opinion compels Maine officials to fund religious schools – merely that if they choose to operate this program, they can’t exclude religious institutions. The state has other options, he noted, such as building public schools in the affected areas or creating an extensive network of transportation to get the students to the nearest public school.
While Christian nationalist organizations and libertarian groups that oppose public education (and a host of other government services) applauded the ruling, advocates of church-state separation and public education reacted with alarm.
“With its radical ruling in Carson v. Makin, the Supreme Court has once again undermined public schools and the students they serve in favor of providing funding for private religious schools that serve only a few and often discriminate against students and employees,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “Forcing American taxpayers to fund private religious education – even when those private schools fail to meet education standards, intentionally discriminate against students, or use public funds to promote religious training, worship, and instruction – erodes the foundation of our democracy and harms students.”
In America, 90% of school-aged children attend public schools. Polls show that most Americans want those schools to be adequately funded.
“It’s time to end all public funding for private schools, especially vouchers. Public funds should go to public schools,” Laser said. “Now, more than ever before, Americans United is committed to defending true religious freedom and public education from the assault mounted by religious extremists.”