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Supreme Court Decides Maine Must Fund Religious Instruction

October 28th, 2022

Legal Case, School Prayer, ULC Case Law
The Supreme Court recently ruled that Maine must fund religious instruction at parochial schools if it also funds private, secular education.

This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court further eroded the separation between church and state by ruling that the state of Maine must fund private religious instruction if it also funds private secular instruction. In the case of Carson v. Makin, all six conservatives on the Supreme Court decided denying public funds to private religious schools constitutes unconstitutional animus to religion and violates the free exercise clause.

Preventing Public Funds from going to Religious Instruction

Like a majority of states, Maine had laws on the books to prevent public funds from being used to support parochial schools, or schools that include religious instruction. In effect, states sought to protect the separation between church and state put forth in the First Amendment by prohibiting government funding of religion. Even the Supreme Court itself recognized the ability of states to go further than the federal Establishment Clause by limiting the use of tax dollars for religious instruction. The 2004 Supreme Court case of Locke v. Davey ruled 7-2 that the state of Washington did not violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause when it funded secular college majors but not religious ones. However, the ideology and political persuasions of the Supreme Court Justices on the bench have changed dramatically in the past two decades.

Maine’s School Funding Program

Maine’s program provided financial assistance to students living in rural, sparely populated regions of the state that had no public schools. This financial assistance was predicated on students attending accredited, private, secular institutions, and did not allow funds to be used for religions instruction at parochial schools. While this setup had been challenged before, it had been upheld by every previous court case over the past 20 years. Indeed, Maine is not alone in it’s goal of not allowing the government to fund religion.

Parents File Suit To Force State to Fund Religious Instruction

Parents who wanted to use government funds to send their children to receive religious instruction at private religious schools sued Maine, claiming they were being discriminated against due to the religious nature of the schools. Both the district court and the court of appeals found Maine’s program to be constitutional, but the parents appealed to the Supreme Court. Even though historical precedent would dictate that Maine’s setup be found constitutional, the Court has steadily chipped away at the separation between church and state over the past several years.

Supreme Court Finds Maine Program to be Unconstitutional

In its 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that Maine’s system of funding education violated the federal Constitution. Indeed, the court now considers it to be unconstitutional discrimination against religion to not fund religious education if a state allows any tax dollars to flow to non public-schools. It essentially turns a traditional understanding of the separation between church and state on its head, holding the exact opposite of what has been instituted in numerous states for decades, if not longer. The Court now considers it to be discrimination against religion to not fund religious instruction on par with secular education.

In his dissent, Justice Breyer noted, “Legislators did not want Maine taxpayers to pay for these religiously based practices,” as doing so might violate their own faith or conscience. The majority tells these Mainers their own views don’t matter, because the First Amendment forces them to foot the bill for other people’s religious indoctrination.”

Response to the Supreme Court Decision

Conservative groups such as The Heritage Foundation and the Alliance Defending Freedom hailed the decision as a victory for school choice, religious liberty, and the ability of parents to choose how to educate their children. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union commented that the decision marks the first time “the court has explicitly required taxpayers to support a specifically religious activity — religious instruction…” Indeed, many Mainers may not agree with the religious practices and beliefs of the schools that they will now be forced to fund. At least two of the state’s schools are openly hostile to and discriminate against LGBTQ+ students, parents, and teachers.

The Goal of the Universal Life Church’s Blog

Each week, the Universal Life Church’s blog focuses on documenting the most noteworthy cases involving the required separation between church and state. Despite required Constitutional separation, many fear that the Supreme Court’s current majority could erode these rights. Our blog focuses on describing matters in a way that objectively examines both sides and which can be easily understood by readers. 

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