Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Supreme Court Says Maine Cannot Exclude Sectarian Schools From Its Tuition Reimbursement Program

In Carson v. Makin, (Sup. Ct., June 21, 2022), in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Maine's program that pays tuition (up to a statutory limit) to out-of-district public or private high schools for students whose districts do not operate a high school, but which requires participating schools to be nonsectarian, violates the Free Exercise Clause. The majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts says in part:

The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools— so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion. A State’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise....

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 restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Kagan and for the most part by Justice Sotomayor, filed a dissenting opinion which says in part:

Nothing in our Free Exercise Clause cases compels Maine to give tuition aid to private schools that will use the funds to provide a religious education.... [T]his Court’s decisions in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza prohibit States from denying aid to religious schools solely because of a school’s religious status—that is, its affiliation with or control by a religious organization.... But we have never said that the Free Exercise Clause prohibits States from withholding funds because of the religious use to which the money will be put....

Maine’s decision not to fund such schools falls squarely within the play in the joints between those two Clauses. Maine has promised all children within the State the right to receive a free public education. In fulfilling this promise, Maine endeavors to provide children the religiously neutral education required in public school systems.... The Religion Clauses give Maine the ability, and flexibility, to make this choice. 

Justice Sotomayor also filed a dissenting opinion which says in part:

This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.... 

If a State cannot offer subsidies to its citizens without being required to fund religious exercise, any State that values its historic antiestablishment interests more than this Court does will have to curtail the support it offers to its citizens.

CNN reports on the decision.