On June 21, 2022, the Supreme Court issued a sweeping decision in Carson v. Makin, representing the latest ruling by a conservative bench in line with the Religious Right’s campaign to redefine religious freedom. The Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, therefore mandating that the state of Maine provide tuition assistance to families for private religious education. Public money should always go to public schools. This deeply concerning decision advances a national campaign to establish only one idea of religion, further eroding the already blurred line between religion and government.
The majority opinion outlines the following as justification for its decision: if the state of Maine provides tuition assistance to families for secular private schools, then that provision must extend to religious private schools. According to the Court, to deny this would violate the Free Exercise Clause, the right of individuals to believe and practice the way they want. The Court here sacrifices the Establishment Clause in favor of a misguided application of free exercise. The state’s requirement that funding be restricted to secular education is not an infringement on anyone’s right to practice their religion. Instead, it is an essential barrier between public money and religious interests.
Conversations around public education and funding often forget to center the most important part of this subject: students. A 2020 study of Pre-K to 12 education by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 49.4 million students attended public schools. Just 4.7 million attended private schools. With over 90% of students attending public schools, diverting public dollars to private religious schools means fewer resources for schools that serve the majority of our nation’s students.
Public funds should support services that are open to all – not only the select few who meet a private school’s criteria. Even private schools with nondiscrimination policies may turn away students on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, academic abilities, disciplinary history, disability, or ability to pay tuition. Public schools serve students of all backgrounds and experiences and strive to create environments where no student feels unwelcome because of who they are, what they believe, or how they learn. With its decision in Carson, the court makes that promise of equal opportunity to a rewarding education more difficult for the state of Maine and public education across our nation.
Furthermore, private religious schools do not provide the same experience as public schools. If a family chooses to enroll their child in religious education, it is their prerogative to do so. But our Constitution prevents that education from being funded by the public. Our government has been framed to keep religious ideology separate from matters of state for this exact reason; when the two intertwine, one part of the equation inevitably loses agency or freedoms. If the neighbors and friends of these families are mandated to contribute their tax dollars to private religious education they may not believe, they lose their ability to choose to support or not support religious belief. The elimination of that choice is precisely the action that characterizes this as a violation of religious freedom.
Private religious schools that receive taxpayer funds should have to meet the same requirements as their public counterparts. By accepting vouchers, religious schools risk being mired in political debates, battles over-regulation and accountability, and disruptive inquiries into their standards and curricula. To adhere to necessary government standards and regulations, students risk losing their religious identity, teaching, and message. It is essential that religious education is guided and funded by religious communities themselves to remain true to their guiding religious principles.
This ruling about the allocation of public money in Maine represents a fundamental shift in religious freedom law. The conservative majority of the Court is giving the Religious Right what it wants: the opportunity to impose one set of beliefs on all. We must work at each level of government and at every capacity to ensure true religious freedom is a standard everyone is able to enjoy.
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