US Supreme Court backs public money for religious schools

A general view of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, United States, October 13, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

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June 21 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed increased public funding for religious entities in a landmark ruling in favor of two Christian families who challenged a Maine tuition assistance program that excluded private schools that promote religion.

In the latest in a string of rulings over the past few years expanding religious rights, judges in a 6-3 ruling overturned a lower court ruling that dismissed families’ claims of religious discrimination in violation of the Constitution American, including First Amendment protection. free exercise of religion.

The court’s Tory justices had a majority in the decision, written by Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, and his dissenting Liberal members.

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The ruling builds on the 2020 Supreme Court ruling in a Montana case that paved the way for more taxpayer money for religious schools.

Maine provides public funds to pay tuition at family-chosen private high schools in some sparsely populated areas of the northeastern state that lack public high schools. Schools that receive tuition assistance under the program must be “non-sectarian” and are excluded if they promote a particular religion and present material “through the lens of that faith”.

Roberts criticized the state program, which he said “works to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools based on their religious exercise.”

The decision offered the latest example of the Supreme Court, with its increasingly assertive conservative majority, making the expansion of religious freedom a high priority in recent years. The judges have been receptive to allegations by plaintiffs – often conservative Christians – of government hostility to religion, including in the educational context.

The families in the Maine case asked for taxpayer money to send their children to two Christian schools that incorporate religion into their classrooms and have policies against gay and transgender students and staff. The First Amendment also prohibits government endorsement of a particular religion.

SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE

In recent years, conservative and religious advocacy groups have petitioned the courts for greater access to public funding for religious education, including through voucher or tax programs that give parents choice outside of public school systems. As the Supreme Court restricts the separation of church and state in the United States, critics have said such rulings risk entwining government and religion in ways the Constitution was designed to to prevent.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent: “Today the court is leading us to a place where the separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.”

President Joe Biden’s administration has backed Maine in the matter, as have public school boards and teachers’ unions. Maine said it was excluding some private schools from the tuition assistance program because they would use public funds to promote religious beliefs.

The 2020 Montana Supreme Court ruling, which involved an education tax credit, prevented states from disqualifying schools from public assistance based on their religious status or affiliation. The Maine case went further, with the imminent possibility of requiring states that subsidize private education to also fund religious activities.

Two sets of parents — David and Amy Carson, and Troy and Angela Nelson — sued Maine in 2018.

The Nelsons said they wanted to use the tuition aid to send their son to a Christian school called Temple Academy in Waterville, but instead used it to send him to a secular private high school. The Carsons said they paid out of pocket to send their daughter to Bangor Christian Schools in Maine’s third-largest city.

Both schools describe themselves as seeking to instill a “biblical worldview” in students, according to court records. They refuse to hire gay teachers or admit gay and transgender students. Bangor Christian Schools teaches that a “husband is the head of the household” and includes a class in which students are taught to “refute the teachings of the Islamic religion with the truth of the Word of God”.

The Boston-based 1st United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the families in 2020.

The families were represented by the libertarian legal advocacy group Institute for Justice.

Pushed by its conservative majority, the Supreme Court in recent years has expanded the religious rights of individuals and businesses while narrowing the separation between church and state.

In another case involving public funds, the court found in 2017 that churches and other religious entities cannot be categorically deprived of public funds, even in states whose constitutions explicitly prohibit such funding. The case involved a church that was denied access to a Missouri grant program that helps nonprofit groups improve playgrounds.

In other religious rights rulings this year, judges on May 2 backed a Christian group seeking to fly a flag bearing a cross at Boston City Hall and on March 24 ordered Texas to granting a murderer sentenced to death his request to have his A Christian pastor lays hands on him and prays audibly during his execution. Read more

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Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

About Christopher Easley

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