WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education, a decision that could ease religious organizations’ access to taxpayer money.
The 6-3 outcome could fuel a renewed push for school choice programs in some of the 18 states that have so far not directed taxpayer money to private, religious education. The most immediate effect of the court’s ruling beyond Maine probably will be in nearby Vermont, which has a similar program.
The decision is the latest in a line of rulings from the Supreme Court that have favored religion-based discrimination claims. The court is separately weighing the case of a football coach who says he has a First Amendment right to pray at midfield immediately after games.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a conservative majority that the Maine program violates the Constitution’s protections for religious freedoms.
“Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 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 wrote.
The court’s three liberal justices dissented. “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.
Justice Stephen Breyer noted in a separate dissent that Maine “wishes to provide children within the State with a secular, public education. This wish embodies, in significant part, the constitutional need to avoid spending public money to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion.”
But Roberts wrote that states are not obligated to subsidize private education. Once they do, however, they can’t cut out religious schools, he wrote, echoing his opinion in a similar case from two years ago. “Maine chose to allow some parents to direct state tuition payments to private schools; that decision was not ‘forced upon’ it,” Roberts wrote, quoting from Sotomayor’s dissent.
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said during a Tuesday radio appearance that he was not surprised by the court’s decision, but he felt it was not consistent with his reading of the Constitution.
Frey also said the court’s ruling will require a reevaluation of how it applies to state law.
Until now, Maine’s exclusion of religious schools has been upheld, Frey said during the appearance on Maine Public. “Frankly, it is concerning, even though we saw it coming.”
The ideological split in Tuesday’s decision also was evident during arguments in December, when the conservative justices seemed largely unpersuaded by Maine’s position that the state is willing to pay for the rough equivalent of a public education, but not religious inculcation.