The Story: Rights of Christian parents were protected by the Supreme Court in yet another judicial victory for religious liberty.
The Background: Maine is the most rural state in the nation, and many families do not have access to adequate public schooling. Maine therefore implemented a program of tuition assistance for parents who live in school districts that neither operate a secondary school of their own nor contract with a particular school in another district.
Because there was no secondary school in their area, David and Amy Carson chose to send their daughter to Bangor Christian School. They selected Bangor Christian “because the school’s worldview aligns with their sincerely held religious beliefs and because of the school’s high academic standards.” But the state law in Maine excluded schools that provide religious instruction from participating in the tuition assistance program.
The question the Supreme Court was asked to consider in Carson v. Makin was whether a state law can prohibit students participating in an otherwise generally available student aid program from choosing to use their aid to attend schools that provide religious, or “sectarian,” instruction. Also at stake was whether this prohibition violates the Religion Clauses or Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
On Tuesday, the Court ruled 6-3 that Maine’s requirement violates the Free Exercise Clause.
“The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions,’” the ruling stated. “The Court recently applied this principle in the context of two state efforts to withhold otherwise available public benefits from religious organizations.”
“Maine has chosen to offer tuition assistance that parents may direct to the public or private schools of their choice,” the ruling added. “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” (emphasis original).
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Kagan and Sotomayor joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a separate dissenting opinion.
Why It Matters: In the past five years, the Supreme Court has been asked three times, “What is fair play in a pluralistic society?” And three times the Court has responded: religious people must be treated the same as everyone else.
As the Supreme Court ruled in its 2017 decision on the Trinity Lutheran case, the government can’t discriminate against religious organizations and exclude them from receiving a generally available public benefit simply because they are religious.
Then in 2020, the Court issued a 5-4 ruling in the Espinoza case that states can’t discriminate against religious schools and families. “A State need not subsidize private education,” the Court ruled. “But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
This week the Court pointed out, once again, that they would not tolerate attempts to disqualify religious people or institutions from benefits that were widely available to other groups. In his majority opinion, Roberts wrote, “we have repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits.”
The Carson case is the third straight win of this type, and it continues the decade-long streak of victories for religious freedom. “It reiterated the religious liberty afforded all citizens when exercising their faith in the course of their daily lives,” says the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “Today’s holding is a substantial step forward in further enshrining the religious protections articulated in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza.”