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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the state of Maine cannot constitutionally exempt religious schools from a taxpayer-funded tuition assistance program that provides vouchers for parents to utilize in order to send their children to public or private schools.
The court heard oral arguments in the case in December, with proponents of school choice on one side versus the state, which defended the manner in which it provides public education for children in the state.
NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported in a somewhat biased manner at the time:
In recent years, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has whittled, and sometimes hacked away at, the Constitution’s wall of separation between church and state. That has been nowhere more apparent than in cases dealing with religious schools. In a series of cases, the court has upheld state-funded voucher programs for religious schools, and in a case from Montana last year, the court partially rendered ineffective state constitutions that ban state aid to religious schools.
Now comes a new wrinkle presented in a case from Maine, a state with 180,000 schoolchildren spread out over a rural state and where more than half the school districts have no public high school. To deal with those who don’t have a … local public school to attend, the state contracts with a nearby public school to take them and provide transportation if necessary.
Two families filed suit, arguing that the state should also pay for their children to attend a religious school.
“Amy and David Carson’s daughter went to Bangor Christian School from kindergarten through high school, even though their town does have a public elementary and middle school,” Totenberg noted.
“But because the town does not have a high school, they contend the state should pay for their daughter’s tuition at Bangor Christian, a school that advertises itself as ‘biblically based,’ with religion ‘integrated through all content areas,'” she added.
Amy Carson explained that “they have Bible class every morning. It’s the first class of the day and Thursday is chapel day. Those are not things that are optional for the kids to choose … If you send your kids there, that’s what they learn.”
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey responded, “Instruction that inculcates, instills, imbues a particularly religious view through its materials, through its teachings, prescribing that there’s one religion above others and that there are certain ways of the world that are consistent with that religion … is not consistent with a public education.”
But attorney Michael Bindas, who represents the Carsons and another family, said the policy amounts to religious discrimination, a violation of the First Amendment.
“Maine provides tuition to families to use at the school of their choice, whether it’s public or private, in-state or out-of-state,” Bindas told NPR. “But there is one thing that the state prohibits, and that is a parent’s choice of religious school. Once the state provides a benefit in the form of tuition to use at private schools, it has to remain neutral as between religious and non-religious private schools.”
“This case is about whether the U.S. Constitution allows a state to bar a parent’s choice of school simply because the school is religious,” he added. “We believe that parents should be free and trusted to choose the schools that are best for their kids.”
The U.S. Supreme Court apparently agrees.
A report in Chalkbeat, an education-related news outlet, published in February forecast the high court’s decision:
In the coming months, legal observers expect the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a Maine rule barring religious private schools from participating in its voucher program. That decision would definitively establish that states offering money to private schools have to allow religious schools into those programs, too.
Some legal scholars say that raises a new question. If a state can’t keep a private religious school out of its voucher program, can it stop a religious school from participating in its charter school program?
“Charter schools are the next frontier,” Preston Green, an education law professor at the University of Connecticut, told the outlet. Compared to school vouchers, “this could actually be more of a win for religious entities if they can get it.”