SCOTUS Rules in Favor of Christian Parents
Analysis. The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a decisive win for religious freedom this week. By upholding the cause of two sets of Christian parents facing religious discrimination in Maine, the high court affirmed once again that having faith ought not segregate us from our communities’ public squares.
This seems like it should be a common sense principle in America. But listening to progressive critics after this ruling, you might think the sky is about to fall. You don’t need to look far to see commentators lament that the court is requiring governments to fund religious education. One suggested “the court has opened the door to government-enforced tithing,” and others seem wary of a movement towards state-favored religion.
I shouldn’t be surprised by the overreaction, but sometimes it makes me wonder… are we all looking at the same facts?
At issue in this case (Carson v. Makin) was a tuition assistance program that the state of Maine set up to ensure all school-age children have access to education. Because Maine’s population is so sparse in numerous areas of the state, many families cannot reasonably access public or charter schools. In such cases, parents can choose any private school approved by general Maine educational standards and the state will send funds to that school for their child.
Again, a key fact: The state chose to make a tuition benefit available to all for private education. And parents could choose any generally acceptable school — except faith-based ones.
Maine claimed its “nonsectarian” requirement was in line with the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on government establishment of religion, and lower courts agreed within state. But the U.S. Supreme Court did not. It said Maine was violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious free exercise.
Writing for the 6-3 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “A State’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”
On that note, responding to dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer’s concern for government neutrality toward religion, Roberts added, “[T]here is nothing neutral about Maine’s program. The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion.”
Lower courts had attempted to find a distinction between an institution’s religious status and its actual religious activity when determining the legality of funds flowing to it. This was reinforced by dissenting Justice Breyer, who believed it important to note that “Maine denies tuition money to schools not because of their religious affiliation, but because they will use state funds to promote religious views.”
But Roberts countered that “any status-use distinction lacks a meaningful application not only in theory, but in practice as well.” So discrimination does not get a pass against a person, school, or other group who simply faithfully exercises beliefs in a consistent, integrated manner.
Justice Breyer’s dissent — joined by Justice Elena Kagan — was lengthy. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s was far more searing. She chided the court’s majority for swiftly altering constitutional principles keeping state funds out of religious coffers and instead requiring governments “to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars.” She also suggested her colleagues were pushing the idea of separation of church and state to be one that will be understood as unconstitutional.
“This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” she declared.
But despite the heated rhetoric of critics, Chief Justice Roberts used the word “unremarkable” when explaining the court’s logic. That’s because he was drawing upon the principles of the Trinity Lutheran victory 5 years ago — a ruling in which 2 of 3 dissenting justices in this case concurred. That ruling found it “odious to our Constitution” for a Christian preschool to be denied a public playground resurfacing grant just because it was faith-based. He also highlighted the Espinoza ruling in 2020 that overruled Montana’s efforts to prevent generally available scholarships from being used at religious schools.
In essence, the high court this week is stating again that a government need not offer a public benefit to private entities. But if it does, faith alone cannot automatically disqualify someone from participating.
Let’s praise God for this victory at the Supreme Court upholding the freedom to believe. And may eyes of critics and those they influence be opened to the sense it makes for people of faith to be respected like any other person in the public square.
Are you encouraged by this victory? If so, share this article with your friends and family to encourage them!
Aaron Mercer is a Contributing Writer with two decades of experience in Washington, D.C.’s public policy arena. Photo Credit: Getty Images.
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