The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Friday to take up a landmark case concerning private school choice and religious freedom. Maine’s private school choice program currently prohibits taxpayer money from being used to fund private religious schools. As plaintiffs, three families assert that Maine’s policy egregiously disregards their First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion.
“Some sparsely populated areas of Maine lack public secondary schools,” Reuters notes, “so [Maine] state law allows public funds to be used to pay tuition at certain private schools of a parent’s choice as long as they are ‘nonsectarian.’” As long as parents don’t send their kids to private religious schools, they can choose where to enroll their children.
Maine’s private school choice program doesn’t allow families to take their children’s education dollars to private religious schools
This prohibition discriminates against religious families and flies in the face of the Montana v Espinoza (2020) SCOTUS decision.
— Corey A. DeAngelis (@DeAngelisCorey) July 2, 2021
As parents who want their children to attend Christian schools, the plaintiffs vehemently oppose Maine’s policy, arguing that it’s unconstitutional. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently disagreed, deciding that “While states cannot disqualify religious schools from public aid programs simply because of their religious status of affiliation, Maine is not required to subsidize schools that would use the money to provide religious instruction.”
When the lower court ruled in Maine’s favor, the families appealed the case. Contrary to that court decision, the families argued “States should not be permitted to withhold an otherwise available education[al] benefit simply because a student would make the private and independent choice to use that benefit to procure an education that includes religious instruction.”
The case involves three sets of parents — David and Amy Carson, Alan and Judy Gillis, and Troy and Angela Nelson.
The Carson and Gillis families currently pay out of pocket to send their children to Bangor Christian Schools. The Nelsons want both of their children to attend a Christian school in Waterville, but they can’t afford to pay tuition for both of their children. As a consequence, their son is enrolled at the Christian school, while their daughter is not. Both schools are private nonprofits, “seeking to instill a ‘Biblical worldview’ in their students.”
Given the Court’s 2020 decision in Montana v. Espinoza ruling Montana tax credits can help pay for students to attend religious schools, the case is expected to be won handily in the plaintiffs’ favor. The families are being represented by the conservative legal group, Institute for Justice, which won Espinoza last year.
In Espinoza, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
The Institute for Justice clearly agrees. “By singling out religion — and only religion — for exclusion from its tuition assistance program, Maine violates the U.S. Constitution,” said IJ Senior Attorney Michael Bindas. “The state flatly bans parents from choosing schools that offer religious instruction. That is unconstitutional.”
“The Court’s decision to hear this appeal is a tremendously important development not only for Maine families but for all families who simply want access to the schools that will best serve their children’s needs,” Bindas continued. “If a family believes that a school that provides religious instruction is the best option for their child, they should be permitted to choose it, just as they should be permitted to choose a school with a strong STEM curriculum, language immersion classes or a robust arts program.”