The Supreme Court of the United States is examining a case that considers if the government has to fund religious education as it does secular education.In Carson v. Makin, parents Amy and David Carson along with the Gillis and Nelson family are suing the state of Maine for denying tuition assistance for their children to attend Bangor Christian School where they want their kids to enroll. Currently, the Carsons’ kids are enrolled at a nonsectarian school, but they prefer their children to attend BCS. Without the state-provided tuition, the Carsons would not be able to afford for their children to attend BCS.
In Maine, tuition is provided to students attending private schools where it is their only option—usually for students who live in rural areas that cannot maintain public schools. Under Maine law, private schools are eligible for funding as long as they do not impart religion.
However, the Carsons, represented by the Institute of Justice, argued that the state should have to fund religious schools as well. They live in a rural area, but the state of Maine has argued that BCS imparts religious beliefs.
At the core is whether the state of Maine is violating the Religion Clauses or the Equal Protection Clause of the United States constitution. The religious clauses in the constitution state a separation between church and state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof.” The Equal Protection clause obligates the government to act objectively towards a group of people as it would any other group of people.
The question before the court is whether BCS is being denied funding merely because it is a religious institution or because the money is being used for religious purposes.
The Carsons were first rejected by the Federal District Court for the District of Maine on precedent from Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley on the jurisdiction that Carson v. Makin involved the use of religious funds rather than religious identity.
The case was appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals on July 23, 2019, and the Carsons were also denied on the same basis as the Federal District Court. However, the Circuit also based their ruling that the Maine law was meant to provide equal access to public schools. Since BCS was a private religious school, the court ruled that it did not qualify as prejudice against religion.
This case was taken by the Supreme Court on July 2, 2021.
The state of Maine’s first point is taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund religious beliefs they disagree with. This prompted Justice Samuel Alito to ask what if a school that taught religious beliefs that were “all people are created equal … everybody is worthy of respect and should be treated with dignity.”
Maine’s Chief Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub responded that those beliefs were permissible under Maine law, prompting Alito to question whether this gives public officials jurisdiction over what beliefs are okay.
Justice Elena Kagan also raised a point of notice that religious schools may divide the community if taxpayer dollars went to ideas they disagreed with.
“People won’t understand why in the world their taxpayer dollars are going to discriminatory schools,” Kagan said.
Maine officials also filed a brief that administrators at BCS saw openly gay students as participating in “immoral activity” and that BCS did not hire any gay or transgender teachers.
“Is it okay to say to a school, ‘You have to take every student and not discriminate on the basis of sex, color, religion?’” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “Is this program permitted to say, with respect to the students, if they meet your academic requirements, you can’t discriminate?”
Taub referred to the Maine Human Rights Act that makes it illegal to discriminate against someone’s sexual orientation.
Attorney Michael Bindas with the Institute of Justice pushed back and said that LGTBQ discrimination was a separate issue.
Freshman Uy Pham hoped that the Supreme Court would uphold Maine’s decision and said that tax dollars to a religious school could be a violation of church and state.
“It is not because I don’t respect other people’s religious beliefs,” Pham said. “By having tax dollars go to private religious schools, a person may be indirectly funding a private school via the taxes they paid who teaches a religion that they might not believe in.”
Junior Valeria Euan also agreed with the state’s decision and questioned if private schools should get public funding at all.
“Public schools themselves still seem to lack funding and in my opinion would not be fair to give money to other schools who already receive money,” Euan said. “I agree with [the state of] Maine when they’re denying funding because the school is teaching religion. We need to keep a separation of Church and State.”
Senior Esther Le shared the same sentiment.
“Since it is a private institution and a religious institution, those who do not believe in the specific religion shouldn’t have to pay through their taxpayers’ dollars,” Le said.
On the other hand, sophomore Phoebe Do expressed an understanding of the government’s opinion and said the government should be fair in where it distributed funds.
“I can see why the government doesn’t want to fund religious-based organizations. But if they [give] funding for private schools, then they need to uphold that and fund all private schools and vice versa,” Do said.
Junior Steven Doan supported funding for private schools but wanted to see how they were administering religion.
“All schools deserve funding no matter what beliefs. If they’re willing to teach and learn, they might as well fund them,” Doan said. “There’s probably some [beliefs] that shouldn’t be taught, but that [discussion] is for another day.”
What this case means
While Carson v. Makin most likely won’t end debates about taxpayer funding to religious schools, it could give insight on the Supreme Court’s positions and set future precedents between separation of church and state when it comes to education. Currently, six sitting justices have been appointed by Republican presidents, while three sitting justices have been appointed by Democratic Presidents.