The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Tuesday that government tuition assistance programs cannot discriminate against religious schools. The opinion is from Carson v. Makin, a case out of Maine.
Parents who live in school districts that do not operate a secondary school of their own are eligible for tuition assistance for a public or private school of their choosing. Most private schools are eligible to receive the payments, so long as they don’t provide religious instruction.
“The question presented is whether this restriction violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” states the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts.
“The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions,'” the opinion states. “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.”
Alan and Judy Gillis, one of three plaintiff families represented by the Institute for Justice in the case, sued because they felt discriminated against based on their religious convictions. The parents send their daughter to Bangor Christian Schools, currently without benefit of the state-run tuition assistance program.
“If our neighbors have the freedom to choose a private school and receive tuition from our town, why are we denied this same benefit just because we desire a religious education for our daughter?” the couple told CBN News.
School choice programs must be neutral regarding religion, with the government neither favoring nor discriminating against parents who select religious schools, according to the Institute for Justice.
“Today’s decision makes clear, once and for all, that the government may not bar parents from selecting religious schools within educational choice programs, whether because of their religious affiliation or the religious instruction they provide,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Michael Bindas, who argued the case in front of the Court. “Parents have a constitutional right to choose such schools for their children, and the Court today held that a state cannot deny them that choice in programs that allow for other private options.”
In 2020, the Institute for Justice won another landmark Supreme Court school choice victory in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, in which the High Court held that states cannot bar families participating in school choice programs from selecting religiously affiliated schools for their children. The Court held that discrimination based on the religious “status,” or identity, of a school violates the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.