New Supreme Court Ruling Paves Way for State Funds in Religious Schools

By: Jim Newberry, Joshua L. Stearns

Published: June 29, 2022

The United States Supreme Court holding in Carson v. Makin could result in public assistance for religiously affiliated institutions of higher education. The Court ruled that Maine’s tuition assistance program is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause because it restricted benefits to students if they attend a private sectarian school.

For students in a district without a public school, Maine’s Town Tuitioning Program (the Program) provides funding for their attendance at another district’s public school or a nonreligious private school. Sectarian schools are not eligible to receive funds, a restriction Maine has implemented to prohibit the use of public funds for private religious education. Maine argued that without the restriction, the Program would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

According to the opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, extending funding to sectarian schools would not violate the Establishment Clause because the Program is a “neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients.” Ultimately, the Court found the Program violated the Free Exercise Clause, as Maine’s proffered “antiestablishment interest” could not justify a program that excludes “some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”

Following Carson, many states’ constitutional or statutory provisions restricting the use of taxpayer money in religious schools are now in question. The Court reiterated from its earlier decision in Espinoza that states are not required to subsidize private education, but once a state begins, “it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” In those states, Carson soon could result in benefits to religious schools, including religiously affiliated institutions of higher education.

If you have questions about this alert, please contact our Higher Education Team.

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