Commentary

Maine-based school choice case headed for Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court has decided to take on a case from Maine that could permanently change how school choice programs operate across the nation.

The case comes from families in Glenburn, Orrington, and Palermo, three towns that do not have public schools and so can take advantage of Maine’s very limited school voucher program. The program pays high school tuition costs for students who don’t have a public school in their district, and the student and their family can choose the school they go to, so long as it is not religious.

The case, Carson v. Makin, raises issue with this religious exemption. The families involved in the lawsuit claim that they have been discriminated against because they cannot send their children to a religious school solely because it teaches a particular religion.

The families sued the Department of Education in federal court in 2018 for tuition for their children to attend Bangor Christian School and Temple Academy in Waterville.

The case is one of nine for which the court agreed to hear arguments last week. It is a pleasant surprise considering they reject 99 out of 100 cases they are asked to review.

The Institute for Justice (IJ) has said that a 2017 Supreme Court decision makes clear that “barring parents from choosing religious options when providing families with school choice violates the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses.”

The IJ has represented the families in legal proceedings on this issue before. Lead attorney Michael Bindas will be the one to argue the case before the high court.

“Whenever school choice programs are adopted, opponents of choice argue that religious schools have to be excluded, or they run to court trying to challenge the program because they include religious schools,” said Bindas upon the Court’s announcement. “If the Supreme Court rules correctly in this case, then that argument from school choice opponents will finally be put to rest.”

In the 2017 case, Trinity Lutheran v. Missouri, the Court ruled simply that religious organizations could not be excluded from public benefits solely on the basis of their religious identity and went no further. It is one of many, though, in a long line of cases that were decided in favor of those forced to choose between their religious faith and a government benefit.

The families’ argument in Carson v. Makin was rejected by a U.S. District Judge in 2019. They then appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which eventually ruled again that their constitutional rights were not infringed by the state’s law.

Between the appeal and that decision, though, the Supreme Court ruled on Espinoza v. Montana, in which the justices declared that Montana engaged in religious discrimination when it applied the state’s Blaine Amendment to prevent religious options in educational choice programs.

Several states have what are called “Blaine Amendments,” which are amendments to state constitutions to prevent direct government aid to educational institutions with a religious affiliation.

The Court will likely rule in favor of the Maine families bringing the case before the justices, which would weaken Blaine Amendments across the country. The ruling has the potential to open the door for private, religious schools around the nation.

Discrimination in all forms is wrong, and that includes discrimination on the basis of religion. The Court’s decision on Carson v. Makin could stop this kind of state-sanctioned favoritism for good and put religious schools on equal footing with secular ones.

About Nick Linder

Nicholas Linder, of Cincinnati, is a communications Intern for Maine Policy Institute. He is going into his second year of studying finance and public policy analysis at The Ohio State University. On campus, he is involved with Students Consulting for Nonprofit Organizations and Business for Good.

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