Supreme Court considers religious liberty in Maine education case

Christine RousselleKatie Yoder   By Christine RousselleKatie Yoder for CNA


Lucky Business/Shutterstock.

Washington D.C., Dec 8, 2021 / 16:55 pm (CNA).

Attorneys representing a Maine family at the Supreme Court are feeling confident following Wednesday’s oral arguments in the case Carson v. Makin.

The case asks whether a state – such as Maine – breaches the free exercise clause or equal protection clause of the First Amendment by barring students in a student-aid program from using their aid to attend schools offering a “sectarian” education.

The Carson family, consisting of parents Amy and David and their daughter Olivia, reside in Glenburn, Maine. Because Glenburn has no public school system, families with school-age children are eligible for a school-choice program that pays tuition at either public or non-sectarian schools.

About 5,000 Maine students are eligible for this program, which specifically excludes private schools that are “​​associated with a particular faith or belief system and which, in addition to teaching academic subjects, promotes the faith or belief system with which it is associated and/or presents the material taught through the lens of this faith,” which Maine considers “sectarian”.

The Carson parents are alumni of Bangor Christian Schools, a K-12 school in the nearby city of Bangor. But because Bangor Christian Schools mandates Bible class, it is ineligible for the town tuition program, meaning the Carsons have to pay for Olivia’s tuition.

The Carsons, along with two other Maine families seeking to send their children to “sectarian” schools, filed suit in 2018. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on July 2, 2021.

Michael Bindas, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, told the court Dec. 8 that “Maine’s sectarian exclusion discriminates based on religion.”

“Like all discrimination based on religion, it should be subjected to strict scrutiny and held unconstitutional unless Maine can show that it is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest,” he said.

Bindas noted that the religious schools “satisfy every secular requirement to participate in the tuition assistance program” and are only excluded from the program due to religious affiliation and religious classes.

A majority of Supreme Court justices signaled that they agreed with Bindas’ interpretation of the law, and asked many questions concerning what exactly constitutes an equivalent public education.

In a post-arguments Zoom call, Bindas reiterated that “parents know best what’s going to work for their child’s education,” and restated his belief that Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from tuition assistance is discriminatory.

Should the court side with the Carsons, Bindas said it would “mean that, finally after four decades, families are empowered to choose the schools that they believe are best for their kids.”

At one point during the oral arguments, Justice Clarence Thomas asked Maine’s Chief Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub if it were possible for a Maine parent to decide to decline to send their child to school entirely.

After Taub replied that there are “compulsory education laws” in the state, Thomas did not appear to be convinced by the state’s argument that religious schools do not qualify to fulfill this requirement.

“So you require them to go to school and you, in certain areas, you don’t have schools available,” said Thomas. “So if you require them to go and you don’t have schools available and you make provisions for them to comply with that compulsory law, then how can you say that going to a particular school is a subsidy?”

Justice Samuel Alito asked if a parent could opt to send their child to an elite private school, such as Phillips Exeter Academy, or Miss Porter’s School, with the town tuitioning program. Taub replied that they likely could, and that education at those schools would be the “rough equivalent of a public education.”

Alito also asked Taub if a school with a religious affiliation that taught values such as nondiscrimination and charity, but without “dogma,” would be eligible for the state’s tuition assistance program.

Taub said this kind of religiously-affiliated school would be “very close to a public school,” and that “public schools often have a set of values that they want to instill.”

“I think what the defining feature, or what would make the difference, is whether children are being taught that your religion demands that you do these things,” he said.

This, Alito said, constitutes discrimination on the basis of religious belief.

“What I described is, I think, pretty close to Unitarian Universalism, isn’t it,” asked Alito. “So that religious community is okay – they can have a school that inculcates students with their beliefs because those are okay religious beliefs – but other religious beliefs, no. Is that what Maine is doing?”

Taub did not give a definite answer.

At one point, he provided a hypothetical to clarify his position.

“If there were a school that was – that was – that was run by an organization that felt it was critical to have part of the program be to inculcate religious beliefs, if – if that school otherwise provided a public education, and let’s say it had chapel services and a class that was intended to instill religion, if – if those classes were optional, it’s likely that that state – that that school would – would be eligible for the Maine tuition program,” he said. “What the state is not going to provide public funding to is a school that is going to require students to take part in programs that are intended to instill religion.”

Later, Malcolm Stewart, the deputy solicitor general of the U.S. Department of Justice, spoke.

“We are not trying to tell the parents what they should do with their children,” he told Justice Gorsuch. “The question is not whether you can be denied the unrelated benefit based on your faith or based on your religious practice. It’s whether the government has to subsidize the religious practice itself.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh challenged Stewart’s position.

“But, at its core, Mr. Stewart, you’re suggesting that with, say, two neighbors in – in Maine, in a neighborhood, and they both – there is not a public school available, and the first neighbor says we’re going to send our child, children, to secular private school, they get the benefit,” he said. “The next-door neighbor says: Well, we want to send our children to a religious private school, and they’re not going to get the benefit.”

“And I don’t see how your suggestion that the subsidy changes the analysis,” he continued. “That’s just discrimination on the basis of religion right there at that – at the neighborhood level.”

At another point, he added, “I think it’s important on this public discord or strife issue to emphasize that, as I understand it, they are seeking equal treatment, not special treatment. They’re – they’re saying don’t treat me worse because I want to send my children to a religious school rather than a secular school. Treat me the same as the secular parent next door. I think that’s what they are asking for, is equal treatment.”

Stewart responded, “Maine is willing to provide a secular education, an education that is the rough analog to what the public school would give you at state expense. It’s not willing to pay for religious inculcation.”

In its June 2020 decision Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the court struck down as a violation of the free exercise clause a state scholarship program that excluded religious schools .

The Second Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum educationis, said that parents “must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.”

“Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.”

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