The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from a state tuition assistance program, the latest case signaling the conservative court’s shift on religious freedom and separation of church and state.
The 6-3 opinion, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., found the program unconstitutional because it provided vouchers that parents could spend at private or public schools but excluded schools with explicitly religious instruction. The Supreme Court found that Maine’s program violated the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment because it prohibits the schools from receiving an otherwise available benefit solely because of the schools’ religious nature.
“The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion,” Roberts wrote.
Parents sending their students to two schools in the state, Bangor Christian Schools and Temple Academy, argued the state program should not prohibit sending their children to an otherwise qualified school based on its religious affiliation.
The state program provides tuition assistance for parents who live in school districts that neither operate a secondary school of their own nor contract with a particular school in another district.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in a dissent joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, wrote that the Maine law embodies “the constitutional need to avoid spending public money to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion.”