States may not bar parents from participating in student-aid programs simply because they want their children to attend a religious school, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 21.
The case, Carson v. Makin, involved a longtime program in the state of Maine that provides tuition support for families who send their children to private high schools because their town is too small to support a public high school.
For more than a century, that tuition support was provided whether the school of choice was secular or religious. But in 1980, Maine’s attorney general issued an opinion that including religious schools in the program violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the state’s legislature then passed a law that excludes “sectarian” schools from the program.
The state has continued to allow the tuition aid if a school is operated by a religious entity but has a totally secular curriculum. But if the school actually provides religious instruction, the state has defined the school as sectarian and disqualified it from the program.
Attorneys from the Institute for Justice and First Liberty Institute represented the parents in the case, Dave and Amy Carson and Troy and Angela Nelson. They argued that other Supreme Court rulings have affirmed the right to include religious options in school choice programs, and also that states cannot exclude such choices in the name of preventing “religious uses” of program funds.
Although the U.S. District Court of Maine and the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the parents, the Supreme Court disagreed.
“Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the [Constitution’s] free exercise clause,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the court’s 6-3 opinion. “Maine’s tuition assistance program … ‘effectively penalizes the free exercise’ of religion.”
The daughters of both the Carsons and the Nelsons have graduated from high school, though the Nelsons still have a son in school. The families pursued litigation knowing the case might not be decided in time to help their own situations, but they wanted to help other families who would encounter the same issue in the future.
“We are thrilled that the court affirmed once again that religious discrimination will not be tolerated in this country,” said Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel for First Liberty Institute. “Parents in Maine, and all over the country, can now choose the best education for their kids without fearing retribution from the government.”
Above: The Nelsons, who were plaintiffs along with the Carsons.
Photo: Courtesy of the Institute for Justice