U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in New Church-State Separation, School Voucher Case

On December 8, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in another school voucher case that tests the separation of church and state. The case is Carson v. Makin, about school vouchers in the state of Maine.

Carson v. Makin was litigated by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm. This case is not an example of parents who want vouchers going out and looking for a law firm to defend their case. For decades the Institute for Justice has been attempting to undermine the First Amendment’s protection of the separation of religion from the mandates of government.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens’ freedom to choose their religion or no religion, and to practice religion as they choose: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Establishment Clause declares that government won’t favor or establish any one religion. The Free Exercise Clause prohibits government from telling citizens how they should worship.

The Institute for Justice first litigated cases on school vouchers in the Cleveland voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that vouchers are constitutional as long as the state gives the money to the parents and allows the parents to choose the school instead of awarding the voucher directly to the religious school.  It was a case decided on the Establishment Clause, which says government cannot endorse or establish any particular religion. Zelman v. Simmons Harris significantly expanded school vouchers across the states.

Then in 2020, when it argued for the constitutionality of state dollars going directly to religious schools in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Institute for Justice used an entirely new pretext, this time under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. The Institute for Justice alleged that if a state awards tax-funded vouchers for private schools, it can’t discriminate against religious schools just because they are religious. The logic seems tortured, but today’s U.S. Supreme Court majority accepted it.

In a recent newsletter, the National Education Policy Center traces the history of public funding for private high schools in some of Maine’s small towns: “The case, Carson v. Makin, challenges Maine’s exclusion of ‘sectarian’ schools—those that include religious instruction—from the state’s ‘tuitioning’ program. Maine has, for nearly 150 years, allowed towns too small to operate high schools of their own to pay for their students to attend other public or private high schools. The state has, since 1980, placed a ban on schools that would use the public funds for sectarian (religious) teaching… In Maine, tuitioning is used as a way to deliver public education, with the private schools standing in the shoes of the public schools that would otherwise have to be built. As such, it would make no legal or policy sense to hold the private schools to a different set of rules around curriculum, discrimination or proselytizing.”

A professor of law at the University of Dayton, Charles J. Russo explains how the issue in Carson v. Makin differs from Espinoza v. Montana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that, under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, the state could not discriminate against a school based on its religious status. Carson v. Makin is about the school’s practice—the explicit teaching of religion, which the state of Maine prohibits. On this matter, the state has prevailed in two appeals of this case: “The federal trial court in Maine ruled in favor of the state, affirming that its “tuitioning” statute did not violate the rights of the parents or their children. On appeal, the First Circuit unanimously affirmed in favor of the state… First, the First Circuit decided the requirement that schools be ‘nonsectarian’ did not discriminate solely based on religion or punish the plaintiffs’ rights to exercise their religion.  This is because the rule has a ‘use-based’ limitation—which may prove to be a crucial distinction. In other words, sectarian schools are denied funding not because of their religious identity, the First Circuit wrote, but because of ‘the religious use that they would make of it.'”

Following oral arguments last Wednesday, VOX’s Ian Millhiser reported: “At an oral argument held Wednesday morning, all six members of the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority appeared likely to blow a significant new hole in the wall separating church and state… All six of the Court’s Republican appointees appeared to think that this exclusion for religious schools is unconstitutional—meaning that Maine would be required to pay for tuition at pervasively religious schools. Notably, that could include schools that espouse hateful worldviews. According to the state, one of the plaintiff families in Carson wants the state to pay for a school that requires teachers to sign a contract stating that ‘the Bible says that God recognizes homosexuals and other deviants as perverted’ and that ‘such deviation from Scriptural standards is grounds for termination.’ In the likely event that these plaintiffs’ families prevail, that will mark a significant escalation in the Court’s decisions benefiting the religious right… The justices are likely to place some limits on its decision in Carson, but it’s not yet clear how they will justify those limits… (I)t’s hard to draw a principled line between a Court decision requiring Maine to fund religious education as part of its existing private school tuition program and a decision requiring all states with a public school system to fund religious education.”

It would be a big mistake to assume that most American religions are in favor of any of these cases. Under the free exercise clause, a large number of religious organizations do not want government interfering with their beliefs and practices. On behalf of 24 organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty filed an amicus brief arguing that the Supreme Court should not, under the Free Exercise clause, affirm the constitutionality of publicly-funded vouchers for religious schools in Maine.  The amici in this case include: the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Catholics for Choice, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ; the Hindu American Foundation, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Methodist Federation for Social Action; the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Council of Churches, The Sikh Coalition; and the Union for Reform Judaism.

The General Counsel and Associate Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Holly Hollman explains why, from the point of view of the organizations filing this amicus brief, this libertarian school voucher case is bad for religion: “Should states be forced to fund the training of young men and women to serve the Lord and become leaders in their church?  Of course not…. In Carson v. Makin, parents are seeking state support for their children’s private religious education. The Baptist Joint Committee and its allies are urging the Court to recognize the historical reasons for keeping the government out of religion… These concerns include protecting individual conscience, respecting inherent limits of government authority in religious matters, and avoiding the creation of divisions based on religious differences.” Hollman reviews Espinoza v. Montana (2020) in which “the Court… held that a Montana tax credit program that funded scholarships to private schools must include private religious schools, notwithstanding Montana law intended to separate church and state.” She explains that in Espinoza, the Court held that the tax credit program violated the Free Exercise Clause because Montana provided tax credits for private schools but excluded some schools because of their religious status. She explains further: “The Carson case tests whether this Free Exercise Clause nondiscrimation rule will be extended to prohibit state programs that are designed to avoid government involvement in religious uses of government funds—such as the explicitly religious activity of providing an education designed to instill a biblical worldview. In our view, it should not.”

Finally in this school year when libertarian organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, and the Manhattan Institute are coordinating and scripting the actions of parents mobbing school board meetings demanding the end of mask mandates, the banning of books, and limitations on what can be taught about slavery and racism, there is another way to look at this case as part of today’s American ethos of individualism and so-called parents’ rights.  Nobody is trying to stop parents from choosing a religious school, but the case of Carson v. Makin, litigated by the Institute for Justice, is intended to force government to pay for the parents’ private school choices.

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