As the nation waits with bated breath for the coming Supreme Court opinion on abortion, the conservative majority on the high court delivered a gut punch to liberals on education.
By a 6-3 vote announced Tuesday, the court struck down a Maine law that blocked taxpayer funding for parents who wanted to send their children to religious private schools.
At issue was a state law that allowed parents to access public funding for tuition assistance to send their children to private schools if their school district did not have a public high school, nor a contract with another school.
State education officials had denied some parents this funding because they opted for religious schools, even though the schools met a state requirement to be accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
The majority determined that Maine’s law interfered with the parent’s First Amendment right of free exercise of their religion.
The state had argued that funding them would violate the Constitution’s clause barring the government establishment of religion.
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“Maine may provide a strictly secular education in its public schools,” the opinion noted. But, “Maine has chosen to offer tuition assistance that parents may direct to the public or private schools of their choice. Maine’s administration of that benefit is subject to the free exercise principles governing any public benefit program—including the prohibition on denying the benefit based on a recipient’s religious exercise.”
This was an important program for Maine residents. As the opinion noted, fewer than half of Maine’s 260 “school administrative units” actually operate a high school because of the state’s rural character.
“We have repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
“There is nothing neutral about Maine’s program,” Roberts added. “The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools— so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion. A State’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”
“Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise,” Roberts concluded.
Roberts noted repeatedly that the ruling followed two other cases – from Missouri and Montana – where the court rejected the denial of public funding to schools on religious grounds.
A court commentator at the website Scotusblog noted that Roberts’ decision was “broad,” and was “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.”
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That is good news for Florida’s Step Up for Students program, which pays for scholarships so low-income families can attend private schools, including religious ones.
The funding comes through the state from private donors, who are given tax credits for the contributions to the program.