The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss recently published a warning about possible unforeseen consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s soon-to-be-released decision in a Maine school voucher case, Carson v. Makin. The Court is expected to release its decision by the end of June.
This is a First Amendment case about the entanglement of religion with government and government funding. Strauss warns: “In Carson v. Makin, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court is likely to require Maine officials to use public funding to subsidize religious teaching and proselytizing at schools that legally discriminate against people who don’t support their religious beliefs.”
Strauss refers readers to a May 12 policy brief, The Outsourcing of Discrimination: Another SCOTUS Earthquake?, by Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. Welner explains why the Carson v. Makin, church-state case seems so complicated and confusing: “The First Amendment prohibits laws ‘respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ These two religion clauses have long existed in tension and in a balance. The Free Exercise Clause protects individuals’ right to practice their religion as they please, while the Establishment Clause keeps the government from (at least in some circumstances) favoring or disfavoring religion or religious institutions. But that balance has perished. A well-orchestrated push to lift the Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause above its Establishment Clause has seen a level of success enjoyed by few other legal-advocacy efforts.”
The issue in Carson v. Makin differs from a 2020 decision in 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 currently prohibits.
Welner traces the history of church-state school voucher cases: “The legal landscape for vouchers supporting private religious schools has changed 180 degrees, corresponding to the shift in the makeup of justices on the Supreme Court. Vouchers for religious schools have moved from being broadly understood to be constitutionally forbidden in (the) 1970s to constitutionally allowed in 2003, via the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) decision, to now arguably constitutionally required, at least under the Montana circumstances.” Here Welner is referring to the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.”
Many have believed that the recent “Free Exercise” decisions—the 2020 Espinoza decision and the decision the U.S. Supreme Court will release this month in Carson v. Makin—will have little real impact on state policy. The 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris—based on the old Establishment Clause definition of the separation of church and state—declared that as long as states awarded the voucher to the parents and not directly to the religious school and as long as the parents made the decision to use the voucher at the religious school, vouchers did not violate the separation of church and state. Following Zelman, most states which award vouchers have already been allowing them to flow to religious schools.
In his new brief, however, Kevin Welner worries that Carson v. Makin could potentially have serious implications when religious schools violate students’ rights protected in federal law. Welner also explores, with a focus on charter schools, how the policy implications would be different in politically blue and red states.
Welner wonders about unexpected implications for all sorts of services which states operate by hiring private contractors—including charter schools: “In a nutshell, the majority of Supreme Court justices may adopt a rule requiring that whenever a state decides to provide a service through a non-state employee (e.g. through a contracting mechanism), the state will face the highest level of judicial scrutiny if it discriminates against churches and church-affiliated service providers that infuse their beliefs into the provided services. Moreover, the Court may determine—in Carson or a subsequent case—that it will apply that same heightened scrutiny to any state intervention if those beliefs drive those providers to engage in discrimination against people because of, for example, their gender identity or sexual orientation (as we see with the private religious schools at issue in the Carson litigation). For states that are politically inclined to engage in such discrimination themselves, this outsourcing of discrimination may be an attractive approach. But states that abhor such discrimination may find themselves forced to pull back on private contracting to provide public services, ending policies that allow private operators of everything from social services like foster care to health care, to prisons and, as I explain… charter schools.”
“If the Supreme Court shifts free exercise jurisprudence in the above-described direction, we can expect that religious nonprofits will apply to establish charter schools… These applications will likely set forth a curriculum consistent with their religious beliefs, including—in many cases—religious worship and proselytization. Some of these applications (or the charter schools’ stated rules) will include curriculum, policies and practices that discriminate against students based on their, or their family’s, gender identity or sexual orientation. If the state refuses these charter applications because of the discrimination, we will see lawsuits from the applicants. If the state grants the applications, we may see lawsuits from the aggrieved students… In contrast to these possible blue-state responses, many red-state policymakers can be expected to embrace the prospect of churches having equal access to government contracts and interjecting religious teachings while carrying out contracted work. Further, the new legal regime could, in these red states, become a red carpet for those with a motivation to discriminate. This discrimination may go beyond hiring or student admission; in some cases bigotry would be part of the curriculum and counseling programs. And it may target, for instance, disfavored religious groups in addition to LGBTQ+ community members.”
Welner concludes the brief: “The Supreme Court’s now-dominant majority of justices with very conservative politics seems to have abandoned the relatively incrementalist (but still very conservative) agenda of Chief Justice Roberts… Religious believers’ claims of discrimination now have a preferred place in the federal courts. Other discrimination claims, particularly those on behalf of members of the LGBTQ+ community, are shown a back seat along with claims raising concerns about the establishment of religion. Riding the wake of these changes, private-school voucher policies have gained legal advantages that were, just decades ago, unimaginable pipedreams. But this may create very real political problems—in blue states at least—for charter school advocates. Of course, the Supreme Court’s majority may, in Carson or in later cases, attempt to carve out exceptions for charter schools and other types of contracting for governmental services… The one sure thing is that we now have a Supreme court that is unabashedly transforming the legal rules within which other governmental entities must make their rules—and education policymakers will have to respond accordingly.”
This blog commented on Carson v. Makin on December 13, 2021, after oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.