The case involves an unusual program in a small state that affects only a few thousand students. But it could have greater implications as the more conservative court relaxes the constitutional line between church and state.
Under the program, jurisdictions in rural areas too sparsely populated to support public schools of their own can arrange to have nearby schools teach their school-age children, or the state will pay tuition to parents to send their kids to private schools. But those schools must be nonsectarian, meaning they cannot promote a faith or belief system or teach “through the lens of this faith,” in the words of the state’s department of education.
Roberts said that program could not survive the court’s scrutiny.
“There is nothing neutral about Maine’s program,” he wrote. “The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the dissenters, answered: “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.”
The case, Carson v. makin, is broadly similar to one from Montana decided by the court last year. In that case, the court ruled that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools.
Roberts, writing for the majority in the case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenuesaid a provision of Montana’s Constitution banning aid to schools run by churches ran afoul of the federal Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion by discriminating against religious people and schools.
“A state need not subsidize private education,” he wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
Maine requires rural communities without public secondary schools to arrange for their young residents’ educations in one of two ways. They can sign contracts with schools elsewhere, or they can pay tuition at public or private schools chosen by parents so long as they are, in the words of state law, “a nonsectarian school in accordance with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. ”
In opposing Supreme Court review, officials in Maine argue that the schools students attend under the program should mirror the teaching offered at public schools.
The Supreme Court has long held that states may choose to provide aid to religious schools along with other private schools. The question in the cases from Montana and Maine was the opposite one: May states refuse to provide such aid if it is made available to other private schools?