By a 6-3 margin, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a case from Maine that the government cannot create a tuition assistance program for families to send their children to private schools, but prohibit such funds from being used at religious schools.

The decision, according to the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, is in line with two recent cases decided by the court, Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer and Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.

“The ‘unremarkable’ principles applied in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza suffice to resolve this case,” Roberts wrote.

Maine is a rural state, with a small and widely dispersed population, and some of its public school districts do not have secondary schools, which include middle schools and high schools. To fill that gap for parents, the state has conducted a tuition-assistance program for decades that provides funds for parents to send their children to private secondary schools where no public ones exist. The state law, however, excludes such funds being used to pay for “sectarian” schools.

Two sets of parents with children in religious secondary schools sued the state, alleging religious discrimination prohibited by the First Amendment. However, two lower federal courts disagreed with them before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The high court’s decision reverses those.

“Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Roberts wrote. “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. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The parents are represented by attorneys with First Liberty Institute, which issued a press release celebrating the win.

“We are thrilled that the Court affirmed once again that religious discrimination will not be tolerated in this country,” Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO and Chief Counsel for First Liberty, said.  “Parents in Maine, and all over the country, can now choose the best education for their kids without fearing retribution from the government.  This is a great day for religious liberty in America.”

Since the Maine law restricted a First Amendment freedom, it had to survive what the courts call “strict scrutiny,” a tough standard that allows such laws to be upheld only in rare cases.

“This is not one of them,” Roberts wrote for the majority.

“The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools— so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion. 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,” the Chief Justice stated.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor wrote dissenting opinions.

The case is Carson v. Makin.


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