WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Maine may not exclude religious schools from a state tuition program. The decision, from a court that has grown exceptionally receptive to claims from religious people and groups in a variety of settings, was the latest in a series of rulings requiring the government to aid religious institutions on the same terms as other private organizations.
The vote was 6 to 3, with the court’s three liberal justices in dissent.
The case, Carson v. Makin, no. 20-1088, arose from an unusual program in Maine, which requires rural communities without public secondary schools to arrange for their young residents’ educations in one of two ways. They can sign contracts with nearby public schools, or they can pay tuition at a private school chosen by parents as long as it is, in the words of a state law, “a nonsectarian school in accordance with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution . ”
Two families in Maine that send or want to send their children to religious schools challenged the law, saying it violated their right to freely exercise their faith.
One of the schools at issue in the case, Temple Academy in Waterville, Maine, says it expects its teachers “to integrate biblical principles with their teaching in every subject” and teaches students “to spread the word of Christianity.” The other, Bangor Christian Schools, says it seeks to develop “within each student a Christian worldview and Christian philosophy of life.”
The two schools “candidly admit that they discriminate against homosexuals, individuals who are transgender and non-Christians,” Maine’s Supreme Court brief said.
The case was broadly similar to one from Montana decided by the court in 2020, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. In that case, the court ruled that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in the Montana case, said a provision of the state’s Constitution banning aid to schools run by churches ran afoul of the US Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion by discriminating against religious people and schools.
“A state need not subsidize private education,” the chief justice wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
But the Montana decision turned on the schools’ religious status, not their curricula. There may be a difference, Chief Justice Roberts said, between an institution’s religious identity and its conduct.
“We acknowledge the point,” he wrote, “but need not examine it here.”
The new case from Maine resolved that open question.
The Supreme Court has long held that states may choose to provide aid to religious schools along with other private schools. The question in the cases from Montana and Maine was the opposite one: May states refuse to provide such aid if it is made available to other private schools?