We welcome the Supreme Court’s explicit recognition that faith-based schools that retain a strong distinctive mission must not be punished for it. This recognition should, in turn, renew the commitment of those working in or supporting a school with a religious mission to ensure that the mission is evident in every aspect of the school’s life and work.
This week, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in Carson v. Makin that a Maine program that bars “sectarian” schools from receiving state-funded tuition assistance is a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The decision is a welcome acknowledgment that religious schools must not be penalized for loyalty to their faith tradition nor tempted by government into conformity with public schools.
Many rural communities in Maine do not have public schools. Since the nineteenth century, Maine has had a program under which families in such communities (more than half of school districts in the state) may receive grants to send their children to public schools in other districts or to private schools of their choosing. But since 1980, state officials have excluded schools that they consider “sectarian” from this program. The state defines a “sectarian school” as “one that is associated with a particular faith or belief system and which, in addition to teaching academic subjects, promotes the faith or belief system with which it is associated and/or presents the material taught through the lens of this faith.” The Carson v. Makin case was brought on behalf of Amy and David Carson and other parents who sought state funding to send their children to private schools that reflected their religious convictions.
In a dissent, in which he was joined by Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, Justice Breyer insisted that “government neutrality” on religious matters was essential, and thus Maine was justified in excluding schools seeking to “teach and promote religious ideals.” The majority opinion points out, however, that “there is nothing neutral about Maine’s program. The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools—so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion.” The Court’s majority opinion in Carson notes that “we have repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits.” It adds that “a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause.”
Significantly, the majority opinion rejects the state defendants’ attempt to make a distinction between the religious identity and the educational practice of faith-based schools.