The U.S. Supreme court will hear a case asking if parents in Maine can seek out state assistance to pay for their children’s tuition at private religious schools.
Makin, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, was sued within the capacity of her official state role by a group of parents in 2018 over state regulations that only allowed tuition assistance for parents sending their children to “nonsectarian” private schools.
The Carsons, Gillises and Nelsons brought the lawsuit. The Carsons and Gillises enrolled their children at Bangor Christian School, and the Nelsons sought to transfer their daughter from a nonsectarian school to Temple Academy, where their son was already a student, The Christian Post reports.
The Gillises were eventually removed from the lawsuit after their daughter graduated from high school, and they were no longer eligible to receive state funding.
In 2019, U.S. District Judge Brock Hornby sided with the state, asserting that “Maine’s educational funding program is constitutional.”
Then in October 2020, a three-judge panel for the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Hornby’s decision.
“In conditioning the availability of that assistance on the requirement that recipients use it for educational instruction that is as nonsectarian in content as the free public education that is not directly available to them, Maine transgresses neither the Free Exercise Clause nor the Establishment Clause. Rather, it permissibly satisfies a commitment, rooted in its own founding charter, to pursue the wholly legitimate end of ensuring the distribution of the benefits of a free public education even to those who happen to live in places that cannot provide it of their own accord,” Judge David Barron wrote in the opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
In February 2021, the Institute for Justice, which represented the parents, and First Liberty Institute filed an appeal to the Supreme Court.
In a statement released on Friday following the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case, Scott Bullock, president of The Institute for Justice, asserted that it is “time to expand educational opportunity for all families.”
He added, “Parents should have access to a wide array of educational options — public and private, religious and non-religious — so that they can access the school that best meets their child’s unique, individual needs. The Supreme Court now has the chance to help make that a reality.”
John Bursch, Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy for Alliance Defending Freedom, a pro-religious freedom legal group, echoed these sentiments writing in a statement, “The government cannot discriminate against people of faith who wish to act consistently with that faith in all areas of their lives.”
He continued, “As we argued in the friend-of-the-court brief we filed with the Supreme Court on behalf of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, the lower court’s decision ‘provides a roadmap for states and localities looking to discriminate against religious institutions.’ That’s why it’s important the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case. They should take the opportunity to build on their decisions in the court’s Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza decisions, which made clear that states can’t oust parents and children from a generally available benefit program simply because they choose a religious private school.”
Bursch concluded, “The drafters of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause designed it to protect not only the right to be religious in some metaphysical sense but also the practical right to participate in religious activity, and that includes a religious curriculum and environment.”
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Kayla Koslosky has been the Editor of ChristianHeadlines.com since 2018. She has B.A. degrees in English and History and previously wrote for and was the managing editor of the Yellow Jacket newspaper. She has written on her blog since 2012 and has also contributed to IBelieve.com and Crosswalk.com.