Supreme Court votes to hear religious school tuition case from Maine

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The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to a Maine law that bans families from a student aid program if they choose to send their children to religious schools.

Parents in the Pine Tree State argue in their petition to the court that Maine’s prohibition against using taxpayer funds on sectarian schools violates the U.S. Constitution. They say that the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue held that a state may not exclude families and schools from participating in a student-aid program because of a school’s religious status.

But, they say, the court did not resolve the question of whether a state may nevertheless exclude families and schools based on the religious use to which a student’s aid might be put at a school.

“By singling out religion—and only religion—for exclusion from its tuition assistance program, Maine violates the U.S. Constitution,” Senior Attorney Michael Bindas of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that is representing the parents, said in a statement July 2 after the Supreme Court acted.

“The state flatly bans parents from choosing schools that offer religious instruction. That is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to hold that such religious ‘use’ discrimination in student-aid programs is just as unconstitutional as the religious ‘status’ discrimination it held unconstitutional in Espinoza.”

The case is Carson v. Makin, court file 19-1746. The court, as is its custom, did not explain why it decided to hear the case. The petition for certiorari, or review, had been filed with the court Feb. 4, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit ruled against the petitioners on Oct. 29, 2020.

The case is expected to be heard during the Supreme Court’s upcoming term that begins in October.

The petitioners are David and Amy Carson, as parents and litigation guardians of their child, O.C., and Troy and Angela Nelson, as parents and litigation guardians of their children, A.N. and R.N. The respondent is A. Pender Makin in her official capacity as Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.

The petitioners state in court documents that because 143 of its 260 school districts do not operate a public secondary school, Maine operates a tuition assistance program under which districts that neither operate their own secondary school nor contract with a particular secondary school for the education of their resident secondary students are required by statute to pay tuition “at the public school or the approved private school of the parent’s choice at which the student is accepted.”

Participating families may send their children to schools inside or outside Maine, including outside the United States, but they may not send their children to schools that Maine deems “sectarian.” Such schools were excluded after a Maine Attorney General opinion in 1980 concluded that letting parents select such schools and still receive the tuition assistance benefit violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 1981 that opinion was made state law.

“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 said.

“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 [i.e. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] curriculum, language immersion classes or a robust arts program.”

Aaron Frey, Maine’s attorney general, did not respond to a request for comment from The Epoch Times but told the Associated Press that he expected the law will survive this legal challenge because the education religious schools provide “is not equivalent to” public education.

“Parents are free to send their children to such schools if they choose, but not with public dollars,” the Democrat official said.

“I am confident that the Supreme Court will recognize that nothing in the Constitution requires Maine to include religious schools in its public education system,” he said.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared July 2, 2021, in The Epoch Times.