The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state programs providing money for public school tuition cannot exclude schools that offer religious instruction.
The decision relaxed long-standing restrictions on using taxpayer money to pay for religious education, further lowering the wall of separation between church and state.
The vote was 6-3, with Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting.
At issue was a state program in Maine that made taxpayer money available to families who live in remote areas without public high schools. Under the state law, they could use the money for their children's tuition at public or private schools in other communities, but not for sectarian schools, defined as those that promote a particular faith or belief system and teach material “through the lens of this faith.”
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said Maine’s program “promotes stricter separation of church and state than the federal Constitution requires.”
The tuition program is not neutral, he said, because “the state pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion.”
He also noted that the state money does not go directly to to schools but flows “through the independent choices of private benefit recipients.”
Two years ago, in a case from Montana, the court ruled that when states make tuition money generally available, they cannot exclude schools that are run by religious institutions — that have, in other words, a religious status. But that decision left unresolved the issue of whether it would matter if the schools actually offered religious instruction.
The court has now answered that question, saying it doesn’t matter.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a separate dissent that she feared the court’s earlier decisions were “leading us to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment. Today, the Court leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.”
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for himself and Justice Kagan, cited what he called “an increased risk of religiously based social conflict when government promotes religion in the public school system.”
The case came to the court after two sets of parents in Maine sued, claiming the tuition program violated their religious freedom.
David and Amy Carson sent their daughter to Bangor Christian School and were therefore not able to receive the state tuition money.
“I like to view it as a continuation of the values and the way that we raised her at the house,” Amy Carson said in an NBC News interview. "The beliefs that the school has are aligned with what we have at the home."
Troy and Angela Nelson sent their children to a nonsectarian school but wanted them to attend Temple Academy, which describes its purpose as “to know the Lord Jesus Christ and to make Him known through accredited academic excellence and programs presented through our thoroughly Christian Biblical world view.”
In defending the program, the state said it offers a free public education but that the families who filed the lawsuit wanted an entirely different benefit — a publicly subsidized religious education. Maine said it had decided that a public education should be “a non-sectarian one that exposes children to diverse viewpoints, promotes tolerance and acceptance, teaches academic subjects in a religiously neutral manner, and does not promote a particular faith.”
Parents were free to send their children to religious schools, it argued, but the state was not required to support them.
The Biden administration supported Maine’s position, saying the state was not playing favorites among various religious entities. That was a switch from the view the Department of Justice took in the early stages of the case, during the Trump administration, when it said the state was engaged in religious discrimination.