Supreme Court to decide if states can refuse to pay for religious education

The Supreme Court will consider Wednesday whether states that pay money to parents for their children’s school fees can exclude schools offering religious education.

In recent years, the court has been particularly receptive to allegations of religious discrimination. He ruled last year that when states make tuition money generally available, they cannot exclude schools run by religious institutions.

In that case, involving a school program in Montana, some judges questioned whether there was a significant difference between discrimination based on a school’s religious status and discrimination based on a school’s use of money from the school. government to teach religion. “We recognize the point but do not need to consider it here,” the ruling said.

Now the court has agreed to consider this issue in a Maine case that calls on judges to take the next step and say that schools cannot be excluded even if they offer religious education.

The state makes the money from school fees available to families in areas that do not have public secondary schools, to use the money to pay for attending public or private schools in other areas. communities.

But schools cannot be sectarian, state-defined as those that promote a particular faith or belief system and teach the material “through the lens of that faith.”

Two groups of parents have sued, claiming the program violates their religious freedom.

David and Amy Carson sent their daughter to Christian school in Bangor and therefore could not receive the state tuition money.

“I like to see this as a continuation of the values ​​and the way we brought her up at home,” Amy Carson said in an interview with NBC News. “School beliefs are aligned with what we have at home.”

Troy and Angela Nelson send their children to a non-denominational school but want them to attend Temple Academy, which describes its purpose as “to know the Lord Jesus Christ and make him known through accredited academic excellence and programs presented at through our fully Christian and biblical worldview. . “

Families’ attorney Michael Bindas of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, said in his court documents that there was no legal difference between a school’s status and its use of tuition money.

“Discrimination is discrimination, whether the government claims to target those who are religious or those who do religious things,” he said.

Maine “discriminates against families eligible for the tuition assistance program and believes that religious education is the best option for their child,” he said.

The state is also excessively intrusive, he added, as it must investigate how a school structures its religious curriculum and activities.

Defending the program, state attorneys said in their court documents that Maine offers free public education and has not denied that benefit to plaintiffs because of their religion, but that families who are suing “want a entirely different benefit – state-subsidized sectarian education. “

Maine decided that public education should be “non-sectarian education that exposes children to diverse perspectives, promotes tolerance and acceptance, teaches academic subjects in a religiously neutral manner, and does not foster a faith or a particular belief system, ”they said.

The state does not engage in religious discrimination or favor one faith over another; it simply refuses to subsidize religious exercise, the lawyers said. While parents are free to send their children to religious schools, the state is under no obligation to support them, they argued.

In the Supreme Court, Biden’s Justice Department supported Maine’s position, saying the state does not play favorites among various religious entities. This was a change from the view the ministry took at the start of the case, under the Trump administration, when it said the state was engaged in religious discrimination.

The court is expected to deliver its decision by the end of June.

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