Court strikes down Maine's ban on using public funds at religious schools

Amy Howe
scotusblog.com
2022-06-22

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Maine violated the Constitution when it refused to make public funding available for students to attend schools that provide religious instruction. The opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts was a broad ruling, making clear that when state and local governments choose to subsidize private schools, they must allow families to use taxpayer funds to pay for religious schools.

The decision was the latest in a series of cases in recent years in which the court has sided with parents and religious institutions challenging state policies that barred them from receiving education-related funds that were available for secular, but not religious, recipients.

The court's three liberal justices dissented from Tuesday's decision, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor cautioning that her colleagues had "upended constitutional doctrine" and expressing "growing concern for where this Court will lead us next."

The dispute before the court in Carson v. Makin began as a challenge to the system that Maine uses to provide a free public education to school-aged children. In some of the state's rural and sparsely populated areas, school districts opt not to run their own secondary schools. Instead, they choose one of two options: sending students to other public or private schools that the district designates, or paying tuition at the public or private school that each student selects. But in the latter case, state law allows government funds to be used only at schools that are nonsectarian - that is, schools that do not provide religious instruction.

Two Maine families went to court, arguing that the exclusion of schools that provide religious instruction violates the First Amendment's free exercise clause.

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