VISA update: Supreme Court rules in favor of public funds to religious schools

U.S. Supreme Court

This Supreme Court ruling is directly applicable to Vermont. Vermont’s tuition assistance program is very similar to Maine’s. Vermont will have to consider how to reconcile the Carson v. Makin opinion with the Compelled Support Clause in the Vermont Constitution.

Editor’s note: This is the June 21, 2022, update by the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

In a much-anticipated opinion the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public tuition funds cannot be withheld from religious schools. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion:

Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance pay-ments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.

The case, Carson v. Makin, originated in Maine where the state operates a school choice tuitioning pro-gram for students from towns without a school, just as Vermont does. Since 1981, Maine limited payments only to “nonsectarian” schools. Though federal district and appeals courts upheld that require-ment, the U.S. Supreme Court has now reversed those decisions.

Carson v. Makin was decided on a 6-3 vote. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett joined with Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Breyer wrote a dissent in which Justice Kagan joined. Justice Sotomayor wrote a separate dissent.

“Today the Court leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation,” wrote Justice Sotomayor. “If a State cannot offer subsidies to its citizens without being required to fund religious exercise, any State that values its historic antiestablishment interests more than this Court does will have to curtail the support it offers to its citizens.”

Legal observers expected the Supreme Court to address a distinction between the religious status of schools (on which the court ruled in 2020 in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue) and the religious uses to which public funds might be put in those schools. Chief Justice Roberts dismissed this status-versus-use question in his Carson v. Makin opinion. Roberts wrote that in prior cases “we held that the Free Exercise Clause forbids discrimination on the basis of religious status. But those decisions never suggested that use-based discrimination is any less offensive to the Free Exercise Clause.” And, he added, “Any attempt to give effect to such a distinction by scrutinizing whether and how a religious school pursues its educational mission would also raise serious concerns about state entanglement with religion and denominational favoritism.”

Taken together with two previous religious education cases — Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Comer and Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue — the Supreme Court has comprehensively replaced the concept of an impermeable barrier between church and state derived from the First Amendment’s religious freedom language with a new concept in which the Free Exercise Clause is predominant.

This Supreme Court ruling is directly applicable to Vermont. Vermont’s tuition assistance program is very similar to Maine’s. Vermont will have to consider how to reconcile the Carson v. Makin opinion with the Compelled Support Clause in the Vermont Constitution: “no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of conscience.”

During the recently completed legislative session the Vermont Senate passed S.219 to permit tuition payments to religious schools while prohibiting discrimination on the basis of any protected classes at both religious and nonsectarian independent schools. The bill did not address the anticipated status-vs-use question. The House Education Committee chose not to consider that Senate bill, choosing to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court opinion. Consequently, the bill died when the legislative biennium ended.

From initial reading of the opinion, the language in S.219 stating “none of the public tuition will be used to support religious instruction, religious indoctrination, religious worship, or the propagation of religious views” appears to be prohibited by the Carson v. Makin ruling. It is unclear whether the S.219 language prohibiting discrimination by religious schools can be supported.

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4 thoughts on “VISA update: Supreme Court rules in favor of public funds to religious schools

  1. Every communist regime has sought to purge or suppress the faith of its people. An atheistic ideology, communism and socialism are not only irreligious but anti-religious. This is in line with today’s woke ideology whereby religion is viewed as a threat because those values compete with theirs. As Marion Smith once wrote, “Most faiths call their adherents to look up past the things of this world. In communism, this world is all there is—a world of productivity and material goods, but nothing else. Thus the regimes that rule in its name seek to destroy the soul and deny any freedom of conscience. Faith, hope, charity and forbearance are dangerous ideas for a system that relies on fear and envy. And what is dangerous must be destroyed. To create the communist heaven on earth, the faithful must abandon their beliefs or endure a living hell. “

  2. Look at VT Digger horrified response. PANIC. While it is okay to have liberal Progressive teachers indoctrinate VT students with THEIR agenda, but they are now horrified that parents object to such and may remove their children to other places. Read this from VT Digger!

    “The decision is likely to open the door for more students to use taxpayer money to attend religious schools, some of which may hold values that are offensive to many Vermonters…..The ruling also has raised concerns that Vermont taxpayers will be forced to pay into a system that funds schools that discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and educators.”

    See? VT Digger says: “…may hold values that are offensive to many Vermonters”……MANY VERMONERS find already OFFENSIVE what the Vermont NEA teaches their kids!! To the Teachers Union there is only ONE way to educuate – THEIRS. In the end the Progressive TEACHERS UNION goes to far, indoctrinating agenda……So to any Dem-O-Libs who may “lurk” here & insist there is no connection of the Teachers Union to the Democrat Liberal Agenda…here’s how it happened, you are wrong…Quote:

    “Democrats and teachers unions officially wed in 1979, when President Carter signed legislation to establish the Department of Education. Three years earlier Mr. Carter had cut a deal with National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, to create the new federal department in exchange for the union’s support in the election. The Democratic Party has been doing more or less what teachers unions demand ever since.”

    • Indeed. The VT Digger crowd can’t handle equal protection.

      There’s nothing in the 1st amendment’s ‘establishment’ and ‘prohibition’ clauses that says anything about the right to not be offended. VT Digger’s Peter D’Auria (the article’s author) should grow up and learn about our form of governance, rather than whine about the rights of those with whom he disagrees.

      • It’s less about Religion Jay and more about what they see as a threat to their control.
        You know all about the Education Monopoly (I mean the Racket that largely funds the Democrat Regime now, along with all the rest of the large Unions).

        They are panicking about loss of power and control.

        The Founders said many times that we were to be a moral and religious people for our Constitution (and high levels of Freedom) to work..
        Everyone with a strict mother knows as much when we heard: “If you don’t behave yourself, we are NOT going to do this again!”.

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