Supreme Court hears appeal of Maine parents seeking to have state pay for religious schools

Die Hooggeregshof will return to the issue of religious liberty Wednesday and consider a Maine school tuition assistance program that parents say violates their religious rights under the First Amendment.

The case could mark the court’s latest step to expand religious freedom, a trend bolstered by the addition of three of former President Donald Trump’s nominees and favored by Justice Samuel Alito, who claimed in a 2020 speech thatin certain quartersreligious liberty isfast becoming a disfavored right.
In Wednesday’s case, lawyers for two sets of parents will argue that Maine’s program infringes upon their rights because it bars them from using the funds to send their children to the religious school of their choosing.
    To make their case, they point to past precedent such as a dispute from 2017 where the court determined that a state could not restrict funds for resurfacing playgrounds from a church-owned preschool based solely on its religious identity. In Junie 2020, the court held that a state could not exclude families and schools from participating in a student aid program because of a school’s religious status. Last term, the justices also ruled in favor of houses of worship in a series of emergency applications challenging Covid-19 restrictions.
      In Maine, parents living in some rural areas without a school district receive vouchers so that they can send their kids to public or private schools in other areas The aim of the program, the state says, is to give students an education that is roughly equivalent to what they would have had if there had been a public school in their area.
        To participate in the program, a private school must meet the requirements of Maine’s compulsory education law. The school district must pay tuition, up to a statutory limit, “at the public school or the approved private school of the parent’s choiceand the school must benonsectarian.
        A school’s affiliation with a religious institution does not, on its own, render a school ineligible. In plaas daarvan, the state looks at the sectarian nature of the instruction and whether itpromotes the faith or belief system with which it is associated.
          Maine argues that the nonsectarian provision is necessary to ensure that public money is not funding religious education. While some religiously affiliated schools are allowed, the state draws the line if the educational material is presented through the lens of faith.
          Religious organizationsthat are willing to provide education comparable to a public educationare eligible to receive the public funds, Christopher Taub, Maine’s chief deputy attorney general, wrote in court papers, but the state declines to fund schools that offeran education designed to proselytize and inculcate children with a particular faith.
          The Biden administration supports Maine in the dispute.
          Lawyers for the parents say they are being unlawfully excluded because their children attend or wish to attend a sectarian school.
          David and Amy Carson send their children to Bangor Christian, a school they say they selected because of its academic rigor and the fact it aligns with their religious beliefs. They seek to use the state funds to help pay the tuition. According to the court record, the school has a mission to instill aBiblical world viewand it will not hire teachers who are LGBTQ.
          Troy and Angela Nelson seek to send their child to Temple Academy, a religiously affiliated school, but would need the tuition assistance to do so. Die skool, located in Waterville, Maine, expects its teachers, volgens hofstukke, “to integrate Biblical principles with their teaching in every subject.
          Maine’s sectarian exclusion discriminates against families who are eligible for the tuition assistance program and believe that a religious education is the best option for their child,” Michael E. Bindas, a lawyer for the Institute of Justice who is representing the parents, said in legal briefs.
          In die verlede, courts have drawn a distinction at times between a religious organization’s “status” or identity and how the schools will actuallyusethe funds. A federal appeals court used that reasoning to uphold Maine’s program.
          The 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals said that Maine’s program does notbar schools from receiving funding simply based on their religious identity,” maar, in plaas daarvan, bars the funds based on thereligious usethat the school would make of the funds.
          Eric Rassbach, vice president at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who filed a brief in support of the parents, said the so calledstatus/usedistinction is meaningless in the context of religious schools.
          The court should reject the idea that to participate in a public benefits program, religious schools have to stop exercising their religion,” Rassbach told CNN.
          While the court has in recent years trended to side with plaintiffs making religious liberty arguments, Alito has said the justices aren’t moving quickly enough.
          In Junie, Alito wrote a furious opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch when he said that the court had not gone far enough in ruling in favor of a Catholic foster care agency that refused to work with same-sex couples as potential parents because the agency believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
            Alito complained that his colleagueswhile ruling unanimously in favor of the agency — gehad het “emitted a wisp of a decision that leaves religious liberty in a confused and vulnerable state.
            Wednesday will be another chance to see what the justices are thinking.

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