For nearly three-quarters of a century, one educational issue has come before the Supreme Court more than any other: the controversy over religion.
Carson v. Makin, concerning Maine’s tuition assistance program for students in districts without their own high schools, continues this pattern—with potential implications for schools, families, and courts across the country.
On June 21, 2022, the court ruled that parents in rural areas where there are no public high schools but who receive government assistance to send their children to private schools can use the money to attend schools with religious curricula. In a 6-3 ruling, the court held that Maine’s requirement to use tuition fees in “non-sectarian” schools violated the Free Education Clause of the First Amendment because parents could not send their children to the schools of their choice.
In two recent cases on similar issues, the court ruled in favor of the families. Carson continues this trend of more than 20 years of more community support for religious school students.
For the school choice movement, which advocates giving families more options beyond traditional public schools but with the help of the government to pay the bills, Carson represents a chance for more parents to educate their children according to their religious beliefs.
Opponents fear that cases like Carson’s could set a precedent for demanding tax dollars to fund religious teachings. Based on their latest rulings, many legal analysts argue that the current court is increasingly sympathetic to claims that religious freedoms are under threat, while creating too close a relationship between religion and government.
SKOT Shift in thoughts
Religion in schools has become a major issue in the Supreme Court since Everson v. Board of Education in 1947, when judges upheld a New Jersey law allowing school boards to reimburse parents for transportation to and from school, including those related to with religion. .
According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall not make laws relating to the establishment of a religion or to prohibit its free exercise”—an idea often interpreted by the courts as requiring “a wall separating church and state.” However, in Everson, the Supreme Court upheld the law as not violating the First Amendment because children, not their schools, were the main beneficiaries.
Everson heralded the “Child Benefit Test,” an emerging legal concept that I wrote about in my work on education law. By this criterion, which the court has guided in many decisions about religion, money and education, children attending religious schools are the main beneficiaries of the public assistance they receive, not their schools. In other words, this logic proves that the government does not directly support certain religions.
However, in recent years, the court has expanded the boundaries of permissible assistance – as it happened again with Carson. This decision expands on two recent Supreme Court rulings on helping religious school students: In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer in 2017, the Supreme Court found that states cannot deny public goods to religious people or religious institutions simply because they religious. Three years later, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the court ruled that the state’s tuition tax credit program could not prevent private religious “schools from receiving government benefits solely because of the religious nature of the schools.”
Maine’s constitution mandates the establishment of public schools. But many rural towns do not have their own high schools: in fact, of the 260 “school districts” in Maine, more than half do not have a high school.
In areas without access to public schools, Maine law allowed students to attend other public or private schools at public expense, but not religious ones. The state requires approved schools to be nonsectarian “in accordance with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Carson v. Makin began in 2018 when three groups of parents unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit on behalf of their children, alleging that the rule was religiously discriminatory. A federal trial court in Maine ruled in favor of the state, affirming that its demands for tuition aid did not violate the rights of parents or their children. On appeal, the First Circuit unanimously upheld the decision in favor of the state, dismissing all of the parents’ claims.
When, as the parents argued in the Carson case, state action restricts fundamental rights such as freedom of religion, courts apply what is known as “strict scrutiny,” which means public officials must prove they have a “compelling interest” in restricting that right. . When the Supreme Court applies “strict scrutiny,” as it did in the Carson case, government restrictions usually don’t work.
In a letter to the court, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that Maine’s program “effectively punishes the free practice of religion.” Drawing on Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza, he wrote that “a neutral benefit program in which public funds go to religious organizations through the independent choice of private benefit recipients does not violate the Establishment Clause.” He also stated that the state’s interest in not violating the establishment clause does not justify excluding people from the public good on the grounds that they are religious.
Previous recent cases have dealt with the status of schools as religious, not whether their actual teaching is religious. The lower courts’ decisions in Carson, on the other hand, dealt with how religious schools would actually use the funds: whether they would provide an education equivalent to that provided by Maine’s public schools.
But the Supreme Court ruled that both “status” and “usage” denials of public assistance to religious school students were “violations of the free exercise clause.”
As is often the case in such high-profile cases, the dissenters strongly disagreed. Judge Steven Breuer, who was joined in full by Judge Elena Kagan and partially by Judge Sonia Sotomayor, wrote of “an increased risk of religious social conflict when the government promotes religion in the public school system.”
Separately dissenting, Sotomayor expressed concern that Carson is “leading us to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional obligation.” Today, the court is leading us to the fact that the separation of church and state becomes a violation of the constitution.”
Carson is unlikely to put an end to disagreements over public funds and religion—or religion and schools in general. But in Carson’s footsteps, two clear points emerge: the court’s continued support for the “child support test” and its continued lowering of the separation wall between church and state in education.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on November 29, 2021.