National and state teachers’ unions condemned the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday ruling that a Maine tuition assistance program barring families from using the taxpayer funds for religious schools is in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Union officials denounced the ruling as one that “attacks public schools,” “erodes democracy,” “harms students,” and undermines “the separation of church and state.”
The Court ruled, 6-3, in Carson v. Makin, that a Maine law that governs the state’s tuition program’s exclusion of religious schools, while accepting other private schools, is a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and is, therefore, unconstitutional.
In a press statement, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said that, with this ruling, the Court “has decided that taxpayers must pay for the private religious education of others.”
“Remarkably and stunningly, even for this right-wing majority, this decision completely vitiates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution and, with it, the separation of church and state, a core constitutional principle that has bound this country together since its founding,” Weingarten stated, adding:
The majority not only attacks public schools and public education but threatens religious institutions and organizations by opening them up to state control and state interference. With public funding comes public accountability. It is wrong to force taxpayers to fund a school that discriminates against our most vulnerable students when the school is supposed to substitute for public education.
Many of the teachers’ unions’ comments centered on the claim that religious schools do not accept all students and should, therefore, be refused public funding.
The Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) claimed, “Public dollars should fund public schools that serve all students.”
“Open and nondiscriminatory in their acceptance of all students, our public schools, which serve 90% of the nation’s students, are a unifying factor among diverse communities in our society,” NSEA said. “Voucher programs undermine public education. They siphon limited funding away from public schools to fund the education of a few students at private schools that are not accountable to taxpayers.”
Public dollars should fund public schools that serve all students. Open and nondiscriminatory in their acceptance of all students, our public schools, which serve 90% of the nation’s students, are a unifying factor among diverse communities in our society. https://t.co/kySXDncM4Q
— NSEAOnline (@NSEAOnline) June 21, 2022
The National Education Association (NEA) said the Court’s decision “erodes the foundation of our democracy and harms students.”
Forcing American taxpayers to fund private religious education erodes the foundation of our democracy and harms students. https://t.co/dtGUtDoF8O
— NEA (@NEAToday) June 21, 2022
“[W]ith its radical ruling in Carson v. Makin, SCOTUS again undermined public schools & the students they serve in favor of funding private religious schools that serve only a few & often discriminate against students & employees,” NEA President Becky Pringle said.
All students deserve a great public education.
But with its radical ruling in Carson v. Makin, SCOTUS again undermined public schools & the students they serve in favor of funding private religious schools that serve only a few & often discriminate against students & employees.
— Becky Pringle (@BeckyPringle) June 21, 2022
Since Maine is largely a rural state, not all school districts operate their own secondary schools. Until 1982, the state had allowed taxpayer funding for students to attend another public or private school of their choice, including religious schools. After 1982, however, the state changed the criteria to exclude the religious schools.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that while “a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause,” he found “there is nothing neutral about Maine’s program.”
The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools— so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion. A State’s anti-establishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.
“Saying that Maine offers a benefit limited to private secular education is just another way of saying that Maine does not extend tuition assistance payments to parents who choose to educate their children at religious schools,” the chief justice asserted.
Roberts pushed back against the dissenting views that the Court is forcing school districts to fund religious schools by pointing out the state of Maine – with its rural school districts that have no public secondary schools – need not resort to funding private secular schools.
“The dissents are wrong to say that under our decision today Maine “must” fund religious education,” he wrote. “Maine chose to allow some parents to direct state tuition payments to private schools; that decision was not ‘forced upon’ it.”
“The State retains a number of options: it could expand the reach of its public school system, increase the availability of transportation, provide some combination of tutoring, remote learning, and partial attendance, or … even operate boarding schools of its own,” the chief justice asserted.
“As we held in Espinoza, a ‘State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,’” he noted.
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Susan Berry, PhD, is national education editor at The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “U.S. Supreme Court” by OhBillyBoy.