The Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider whether states that give money to parents for their children’s high school tuition can exclude schools offering a religious education.
In recent years, the court has been especially receptive to claims of religious discrimination. It ruled last year that when states make tuition money generally available, they cannot exclude schools that are run by religious institutions.
In that case, involving a school program in Montana, some justices questioned whether there was a meaningful difference between discrimination based on a school’s religious status and that based on a school’s use of government money to teach religion. “We acknowledge the point but need not examine it here,” the ruling said.
Now the court has agreed to examine that question in a case from Maine that invites the justices to take the next step and say schools cannot be excluded even if they offer religious instruction.
The state makes tuition money available to families in areas that do not have public high schools, to use the money to pay for attendance at public or private schools in other communities.
But the schools cannot be sectarian, defined by the state as those that promote a particular faith or belief system and teach material “through the lens of this faith.”
Two sets of parents sued, claiming the program violates their religious freedom.
David and Amy Carson sent their daughter to Bangor Christian School and were therefore not able to receive the state tuition money.
“I like to view it as a continuation of the values and the way that we raised her at the house,” Amy Carson said in an NBC News interview. “The beliefs that the school has are aligned with what we have at the home.”
Troy and Angela Nelson send their children to a nonsectarian school but want them to attend Temple Academy, which describes its purpose as “to know the Lord Jesus Christ and to make Him known through accredited academic excellence and programs presented through our thoroughly Christian Biblical world view.”
The lawyer for the families, Michael Bindas of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, said in his court filings that there’s no legal difference between a school’s status and its use of the tuition money.
“Discrimination is discrimination, whether the government claims to target those who are religious or those who do religious things,” he said.
Maine “discriminates against families who are eligible for the tuition assistance program and believe that a religious education is the best option for their child,” he said.
The state is also excessively intrusive, he added, because it must inquire into how a school structures its religious curriculum and activities.
In defending the program, lawyers for the state said in their court filings that Maine offers a free public education and hasn’t denied that benefit to the plaintiffs based on their religion, but that the families who are suing “want an entirely different benefit — a publicly subsidized sectarian education.”
Maine has decided that a public education should be “a nonsectarian one that exposes children to diverse viewpoints, promotes tolerance and acceptance, teaches academic subjects in a religiously neutral manner, and does not promote a particular faith or belief system,” they said.
The state is not engaging in religious discrimination or favoring one faith over another; it is simply declining to subsidize religious exercise, the lawyers said. While parents are free to send their children to religious schools, the state is not required to support them, they argued.
In the Supreme Court, the Biden Justice Department supported Maine’s position, saying the state is not playing favorites among various religious entities. That was a switch from the view the department took in the early stages of the case, during the Trump administration, when it said the state was engaged in religious discrimination.
The court is expected to issue its decision by the end of June.