The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the state of Maine violated the Constitution when it refused to make public funding available for students to attend schools that provide religious instruction. The opinion states that when state and local governments choose to subsidize private schools, they must allow families to use taxpayer funds to pay for religious schools.
The dispute before the court began as a challenge to the system that Maine uses to provide public education to school-age children. In some of the state’s rural and sparsely populated areas, school districts do not have secondary schools. Instead, parents can send students to other public or private schools that the district selects, or pay tuition at the public or private school that the student selects.
If the student chooses a
school that requires tuition, state law allows government funds to be used
only at schools that do not provide religious instruction. In other words,
state law allows government funds to pay for a private, non-religious school,
but not for a private, religious school.
Two Maine families went to court, arguing that the exclusion of schools that provide religious instruction violates the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed, with the reasoning that Maine pays tuition for some students to attend private schools, as “long as the schools are not religious.”
The court found that this is a
form of discrimination against religion. It does not matter that the
Maine program was intended to provide students with a substitute for a secular
education. The focus of the program is to provide a benefit in the form
of tuition to attend a public or private school, not to provide
an education that students would receive in public schools. The court
noted that private schools that are non-religious (and
therefore eligible for the tuition benefit) are not required to use the
same curriculum as public schools, or even to use certified teachers.
The Supreme Court explicitly stated that
its ruling does not require the state to fund religious education,
noting Maine has other options to eliminate its need to fund private
schools. It could, for example, create more public schools or improve
transportation to public schools. But since it has chosen to provide
public funding for private schools, it cannot disqualify some private schools
solely because they are religious.
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