Supreme Court says Maine cannot exclude religious schools from tuition assistance programs

The 6-3 ruling is the Conservative court’s latest move to extend religious freedom rights and bring more religion into public life, a trend reinforced by the incorporation of three of former President Donald Trump’s candidates.

“Maine’s” non-sectarian “requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the First Amendment free exercise clause,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for most. “Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program works to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools based on their religious practice.”

Judges Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined Roberts. The three Liberal judges disagreed.

It is a loss for critics who say the decision will lead to a further erosion of the separation of church and state. Although only one other state, Vermont, has a similar program, the court ruling could inspire other states to pass similar programs.

Steve Vladeck, a CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas Law School, said “today’s ruling puts states in a difficult position” if they choose to offer tuition assistance programs school.

“While framed as a school choice decision, it’s hard to see how this won’t have implications for a much wider range of state benefit programs, putting the government in an awkward position of having to “Choosing between directly funding religious activity or not offering funding at all,” Vladeck said.

In writing a dissent that was joined by Judge Elena Kagan and in part Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Judge Stephen Breyer said that the court “had never before held what the Court considers today, that is, that a State it must (cannot) use state funds to pay for education as part of an enrollment program designed to ensure the provision of free public education throughout the state. ”

In response to Breyer’s emphasis on “government neutrality,” Roberts wrote that “there is nothing neutral about the Maine program.”

“The state,” he said, “pays for tuition for certain students in private schools, as long as they are not religious.”

“This is discrimination against religion,” Roberts said.

“The administration of this benefit by Maine is subject to the principles of free exercise that govern any such public benefit program, including a prohibition on denying the benefit based on the religious exercise of the recipient,” he said. add.

Sotomayor, in his own dissent, put Tuesday’s ruling in context with other recent court actions to extend religious freedom, while accusing the court of dismantling “the wall separating the church and the state that the Framers fought to build. “

Most, he wrote, did so “embracing arguments from previous separate writings and ignoring decades of precedents that offer governments the flexibility to navigate the tension between religion clauses.”

“As a result, in just a few years, the Court has overturned constitutional doctrine, moving from a rule that allows states to decline funding for religious organizations to one that requires states in many circumstances to subsidize religious indoctrination. with taxpayer dollars, “Sotomayor said. .

Conservatives and religious organizations praised the ruling, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which filed a writ on the case.

“This Supreme Court ruling opens the door to our state and local advocacy efforts in key locations such as New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and elsewhere,” said Maury Litwack, executive director of the Education Coalition. of the Orthodox Union.

Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief executive of the First Liberty Institute, called the ruling “a great day for religious freedom in America.”

“We are pleased that the Court has once again stated that religious discrimination will not be tolerated in this country,” Shackleford said in a statement. “Parents in Maine and across the country can now choose the best education for their children without fear of government pay.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

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