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Supreme Court's religious school ruling signals 'dangerous road' for LGBTQ rights, advocates say

The two private religious schools at the center of the case have histories of homophobic and transphobic policies.
Bangor Christian School in Bangor, Maine.
Bangor Christian School in Bangor, Maine.Google Maps

A Supreme Court decision allowing taxpayer dollars to help pay for tuition at schools that offer religious instruction has sparked concerns about the potential implications of the ruling on LGBTQ rights. 

In a 6-3 vote, the court ruled Tuesday that Maine could not prohibit parents from using a state-funded tuition assistance program to pay for their children to attend private religious schools while permitting them to do so in private secular schools. The two schools cited in the case have a history of homophobic and transphobic policies. 

The ruling in Carson v. Makin is a continuation of the conservative-majority court’s recent willingness to poke holes in the barrier between church and state. A number of LGBTQ advocacy organizations and other supporters of queer rights are sounding the  alarm about what the decision signals about the court’s direction, especially when it comes to reconciling religious freedom with safeguarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people from discrimination. 

Following the high court’s decision, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a statement that he is “terribly disappointed and disheartened” by the ruling, which specifically affects about 5,000 Maine children and their families who live in rural school districts that do not have a public school, and therefore must rely on the tuition program to attend private school. 

He said the schools named in the suit “promote a single religion to the exclusion of all others, refuse to admit gay and transgender children, and openly discriminate in hiring teachers and staff.” He also vowed to work with Maine’s governor, Janet Mills, to “ensure that public money is not used to promote discrimination, intolerance, and bigotry.”

“While parents have the right to send their children to such schools, it is disturbing that the Supreme Court found that parents also have the right to force the public to pay for an education that is fundamentally at odds with values we hold dear,” Frey said in the statement. 

The two private Christian schools involved in the case — Temple Academy and Bangor Christian Schools — “candidly admit” that they discriminate against LGBTQ people, state officials wrote in a May 2021 court filing

Bangor Christian’s 2021 handbook, for example, says the only “legitimate meaning” of marriage is one that “joins one man and one woman” and states that “any other type of sexual activity, identity or expression that lies outside of this definition of marriage” are “sinful perversions of and contradictory to God’s natural design.”

“Any deviation from the sexual identity that God created will not be accepted,” the handbook states. 

Temple Academy requires students and parents to sign a form acknowledging that the school adheres to a conservative evangelical ideology that includes views on marriage and homosexuality that are “often at odds” with the “humanistic views currently prevailing in our society.”

Plaintiffs David and Amy Carson, one of the two sets of parents who sued Maine over its tuition assistance program, told NBC News on Tuesday that they wanted to send their daughter to Bangor Christian because, as Amy Carson put it, the school’s beliefs “are aligned with what we have at the home.”

Martha Boone, principal of Bangor Christian, declined Wednesday to comment to NBC News. Temple Academy did not respond to a request for comment. 

Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia University, said Tuesday’s ruling is a “huge loss” for LGBTQ equality, adding that the decision will allow public funds to flow to private schools that have policies that seem to conflict with public values. 

“That certainly impacts LGBT students most directly, because these schools are well known in Maine for being quite homophobic,” Franke said. “What we’re seeing, I think, in this decision, is this new court bringing together several strands of its religious liberty jurisprudence, or doctrine, in a way that clearly elevates religious liberty rights over all other rights,” she said. 

Equality Maine, a statewide LGBTQ rights organization based in Portland, wrote in a tweet that it is “disappointed but not surprised” by the ruling, because many religious schools “openly discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, promote only their beliefs, and are closed to divergent point of views.” 

“Because of the Supreme Court ruling, we believe Maine has an obligation to examine their policies and procedures, and change them, to avoid public money to flow to religious institutions that we know discriminate against LGBTQ+ people,” the group wrote in a separate tweet. 

The implications of Tuesday’s decision remind Jenny Pizer, acting chief legal officer for LGBTQ civil rights group Lambda Legal, of the late ‘90s, when Congress passed a series of laws that came to be known as “Charitable Choice.” According to White House archives, the laws were intended to clarify the rights and the responsibilities of faith-based organizations receiving federal money. 

Pizer said the laws were part of a push to expand partnerships and collaboration between government and religious agencies that left some worried about what she called “a dangerous path of entangling government and taxpayer money with religion.” She said she believes Tuesday’s decision is evidence of those fears coming to bear. 

“As members of a community that has been subjected to generations of abuse based on religious condemnation of who we are, this is a very alarming time,” she said. “This decision is the continuation of a trend. It’s not the beginning. It’s not the end. It’s one point on a dangerous road.” 

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