Supreme Court considers whether religious schools in Maine should get state funding

The United States Supreme Court is considering a case that examines whether the government should fund religious education as it does secular education. Carson v. Makinparents Amy and David Carson along with the Gillis and Nelson family are suing the state of Maine for denying their children tuition assistance to attend Bangor Christian School where they want their children to enroll. Currently, the Carsons’ children are enrolled in a non-denominational school, but they prefer their children to attend BCS. Without state-provided tuition, the Carsons would not be able to afford their children to attend BCS.

The context

In Maine, tuition is offered to students attending private schools where it is their only option, usually for students who live in rural areas that cannot maintain public schools. Under Maine law, private schools are eligible for funding as long as they do not impart religion.

However, the Carsons, represented by the Institute of Justice, argued that the state should also fund religious schools. They live in a rural area, but the state of Maine argued that BCS conveys religious beliefs.

The bottom line is whether the state of Maine is violate the religious clauses or the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. The religious clauses of the constitution stipulate a separation between church and state, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion or prohibiting the exercise thereof.” The equal protection clause requires the government to act objectively towards one group of people as it would towards any other group of people.

The question before the court is whether BCS is refuse funding simply because it is a religious institution or because the money is used for religious purposes.

The Carsons were initially dismissed in the Federal District Court of Maine on the precedent of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley on the jurisdiction that Carson v. Makin involved the use of religious backgrounds rather than religious identity.

The case was appealed to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on July 23, 2019, and the Carsons were also dismissed on the same basis as the Federal District Court. However, the circuit also based its decision on the fact that Maine law was meant to provide equal access to public schools. Since BCS was a private religious school, the court ruled that this was not prejudice against religion.

This case was brought before the Supreme Court on July 2, 2021.

Judges probe

The State of Maine’s first point is that taxpayers should not have to fund religious beliefs with which they do not agree. This prompted Judge Samuel Alito to question whether a school that taught religious beliefs that “all people are created equal…everyone is worthy of respect and should be treated with dignity.”

Maine Chief Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub responded that such beliefs were permitted by Maine law, prompting Alito to question whether that gave officials jurisdiction over acceptable beliefs.

Judge Elena Kagan also pointed out that religious schools could divide the community if taxpayers’ money went to ideas they disagreed with.

“People won’t understand why in the world their taxpayers’ money is going to discriminatory schools,” Kagan said.

Maine officials also filed a brief stating that BCS administrators viewed openly gay students as participating in “unethical activities” and that BCS did not hire any gay or transgender teachers.

“Is it okay to say to a school, ‘You have to take all the students and not discriminate on the basis of sex, color, religion?’ said Judge Sonia Sotomayor. “Is this program allowed to say, with respect to students, if they meet your academic requirements, you cannot discriminate?”

Taub referenced Maine’s human rights law, which makes it illegal to discriminate against someone’s sexual orientation.

Attorney Michael Bindas of the Institute of Justice pushed back and said LGBTQ discrimination was a separate issue.

Student responses

Freshman Uy Pham hoped the Supreme Court would uphold Maine’s decision and said taxpayer money given to a religious school could be a violation of church and state.

“It’s not because I don’t respect other people’s religious beliefs,” Pham said. “By having taxpayers’ money go to private religious schools, a person can indirectly fund a private school through the taxes they have paid that teaches a religion they might not believe in.”

Junior Valeria Euan also agreed with the state’s decision and questioned whether private schools should get public funding.

“Public schools themselves always seem to be underfunded and in my opinion it would not be fair to give money to other schools that are already receiving money,” Euan said. “I agree with [the state of] Maine when they refuse funding because the school teaches religion. We must maintain a separation of church and state.

Senior Esther Le shared the same sentiment.

“Since it is a private institution and a religious institution, those who do not believe in a specific religion should not have to pay with their taxpayers’ money,” Le said.

On the other hand, second-year student Phoebe Do expressed her understanding of the government’s opinion and said that the government should be fair in distributing funds.

“I can see why the government does not want to fund religious organizations. But if they [give] funding for private schools, then they have to respect that and fund all private schools and vice versa,” Do said.

Junior Steven Doan supported funding private schools but wanted to see how they administered religion.

“All schools deserve funding, regardless of their beliefs. If they’re willing to teach and learn, might as well fund them,” Doan said. “There are probably [beliefs] it shouldn’t be learned, but it [discussion] that’s for another day.

What this case means

While Carson v. Makin likely won’t end debates over taxpayer funding of religious schools, it could provide insight into Supreme Court positions and set future precedents between church-state separation in matters of education. Currently, six sitting judges have been appointed by Republican presidents, while three sitting judges have been appointed by Democratic presidents.


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