One of the smartest things the framers of the United States Constitution did for the future of the government they designed was to impose both state-sponsored freedom of religion and freedom of choose their own form of worship.
These principles were concisely summed up in a single sentence in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …” Unfortunately, the “establishment” clause has recently been eroded by the conservative majority in the United States Supreme Court and is likely to be further eroded in Carson v. Makin, a case that originated in Maine.
The authors did not operate in a historical vacuum. They were among the most knowledgeable, traveled and experienced men of their time. And they were fully aware of a clear lesson taught by history: that mixing religion with the muscle and money of state power tends to create a toxic mix of intolerance, persecution and violence. They were no doubt aware of the century and a half of European religious warfare that raged between Catholics and Protestants from the early 1500s to the mid 1600s.
Carson stems from a Maine law that requires communities without a public high school — representing more than half of Maine’s 260 school administrative units — to provide tuition assistance for their students to attend a public school in a district. neighbor or an approved private school of their parents. Choose. To be eligible, however, the private school must meet the state’s basic curriculum requirements and be “sectarian-free,” consistent with the state’s policy of providing a free public education system. and religiously neutral.
In Carson, three families sued, claiming that the Tuition Assistance Act violated their right to free exercise of religion by denying them state funding to have their children educated in a religious school where there was no local public high school. The U.S. District Court in Maine and the First Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed their challenge. The parents appealed to the US Supreme Court, where the case was heard in December and is now awaiting the court’s decision.
The problem isn’t that faith-based schools don’t teach STEM courses, languages, or the arts. It is that many of their admissions, hiring and program policies are based on their particular religious doctrines.
One of the two religious schools associated with the Carson case, for example, has a mission “to instill a biblical worldview in its students”, provides religious instruction “completely tied” to its curriculum, and teaches that the Bible is the “supreme authority in all matters”. Because of its “high biblical standards,” it will also not hire gay or transgender teachers. The other school also offers a “biblically integrated education”, has a philosophy “based on an entirely Christian and biblical worldview” and refuses to employ gay teachers.
The United States Supreme Court has become increasingly concerned over the past five years with the public funding of religious schools. The 2017 Supreme Court case Trinity Lutheran v. Comer ruled unconstitutional a state law prohibiting public subsidies to a church-owned preschool for the resurfacing of its playground. In Espinoza v. Washington Dept. of Revenue of 2020, the Court upheld a state law that granted public tax credits to those who donated to organizations providing scholarships to private schools, including schools controlled by a “church, a sect or denomination”.
Although both cases prohibited the denial of a public benefit to schools solely on the basis of religious status or affiliation, they did not answer the larger question – whether such schools can be denied funding. public if they intend to use this funding to pay for religious instruction or indoctrination. Carson can provide the answer.
Challenges to the separation of church and state seem to come primarily from those who wish to promote public support for Christian schools. However, the precedent, once set, should open the door to schools of other faiths, such as Islamic madrassas, Jewish yeshivas and Hindu academies. Religions outside the mainstream would also not necessarily be excluded. I don’t know, for example, if Rastafarians maintain religious schools, but, if they do, I don’t see why they couldn’t qualify.
Such a precedent could not only precipitate battles over what constitutes a qualifying “religion”, but also over how to shape the curriculum when religious tenets conflict with secular teaching (such as biblical creationism vs. evolution) and whether to apply anti-discrimination laws in religions. schools that deny admission or employment to gay, transgender, atheist, pro-choice applicants, etc.
Above all, it could result in the use of public funds to indoctrinate students with a narrow or intolerant bigoted worldview, thus deepening the schisms in our society and making our “more perfect union” even less perfect than it is. already.
So let’s say a prayer that the Supreme Court refuses to set a precedent that requires public funds to be used to pay for religious education.
Elliott Epstein is a litigator at Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 15 years, analyzes current events in a historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child”, a book about the notorious murder of Angela Palmer in 1984. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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