By Michael Foust
The U.S. Supreme Court handed supporters of religious liberty a landmark victory Tuesday, striking down a Maine tuition assistance program that excludes religious schools from eligibility.
The justices, in a 6-3 decision, ruled that the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause by not remaining neutral in the decision that parents make.
Under Maine’s law, parents who live in rural areas without a public school are given money to educate their children at a public school or private school, including out-of-state schools. Religious schools, though, are not eligible.
A group of parents who wanted to use the money to send their kids to Christian schools brought the lawsuit.
The court’s conservative bloc formed the majority opinion, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the decision.
“We have repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits,” Roberts wrote. “… [A] neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause.”
The Maine law, Roberts wrote, results in “discrimination against religion.”
“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,” he wrote.
Religious liberty groups applauded the court’s decision.
“We are thrilled that the Court affirmed once again that religious discrimination will not be tolerated in this country,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, which, along with Institute for Justice, brought the lawsuit. “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.”
Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, also said it was a win for religious freedom.
“When the government offers parents school choice, it can’t take away choices that are deemed ‘too religious’ or withhold funds from those who choose religious schools when the state offers those funds to everybody else,” said ADF senior counsel John Bursch. “Today’s decision from the Supreme Court affirms our country’s abiding principle of religious liberty and, importantly, allows Maine parents the freedom to send their children to schools that align with their beliefs.”
The case was Carson v. Makin.