Carson v. Makin decision “runs counter to decades of precedent saying that government funding could not be used for religious purposes”

Today the Supreme Court issued its decision in Carson v. Makin, ruling that a Maine program subsidizing tuition at private secondary schools is unconstitutional under the Free Exercise Clause because it bans the use of public funding for schools that provide religious instruction. The case resulted from a challenge to Maine’s program of subsidizing students’ enrollment in private secondary schools in areas of the state where there is no public secondary school nearby. Under the program, a school must provide the same type of education as a public school, and thus the private school must be “nonsectarian in accordance with the First Amendment,” in addition to meeting the state’s accreditation, reporting and auditing requirements. Several parents challenged the nonsectarian requirement as a violation of their constitutional right to free exercise of religion. The ruling has major implications for the use of public funds in the promotion of sectarian views in the U.S, as well as for school funding programs and access to education. Statement from Mary L. Bonauto, GLAD’s Civil Rights Project Director, and Gary Buseck, GLAD Senior Adviser: “We should all be concerned about this ruling which runs counter to decades of precedent saying that government funding could not be used for religious purposes and holds open the door to widespread use of taxpayer money to promote religious views. “Most immediately, the Court’s opinion will force the state of Maine to choose between using the public’s funds to support pervasive sectarian education or giving up a program that ensures access to education for all students. “It is surprising that the Court chose this case to make such a significant change in the law of religious school funding. Maine does not have a “voucher” or “school choice” program allowing parents to select a school other than their local public school. Instead, it uses the state tuition benefit for a limited number of students who lack a public high school option, for use in both public and private schools, if the education is “’roughly equivalent to the education [students] would receive in public schools.’” Carson v. Makin, 979 F.3d 21, 36 (1st Cir. 2020) (quoting the Maine Commissioner of Education). “Even more surprising, Maine approved of some religiously affiliated or operated schools for participation as long as the educational instruction is as nonsectarian in content as a public school education. Only if a school promoted its faith or belief system, or presented material through the lens of faith, was it disqualified from receiving the state tuition benefit. This was as fair a way as exists to use government money for public education and to wall off the proselytization and inculcation that exists in some religious schools. “Today, the court jettisoned the approach that fairly included both public and private schools (including religious schools) in favor of requiring public funding of religious schools that expressly seek to inculcate particular theological worldviews. “As Justice Breyer noted in his dissent, the Constitution requires “some play in the joints” between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause so as to allow the government to achieve a “benevolent neutrality” that permits religious exercise without sponsorship and without interference. In Justice Breyer’s view, in its ruling, the majority has paid no attention to the Establishment Clause while giving almost exclusive attention to Free Exercise. As a consequence, the Court has allowed the use of taxpayer funds to promote religious views—with no consideration of where this might lead.”