This case arises out of the unique way that Maine provides free education to its 180,000 students. Every child in the United States is entitled to a free public education. In Maine, there are rural areas where students don’t have easy access to a public school. Given that limitation, some of the school districts allow parents to choose a private school in the area to teach their children.
In order for a school to be able to participate in this program — and receive government funding — the private school must meet the state’s minimum requirements, and it must be “nonsectarian.” Functionally, this excludes a private religious school from participating in Maine’s public education program, because any school that provides religious instruction is considered “sectarian.”
In this case, three families sent their children to private schools that are accredited but do not meet the nonsectarian requirement because they are religiously affiliated. The schools aren’t approved by the State of Maine, and the families did not qualify for tuition assistance. They filed a lawsuit stating that Maine’s nonsectarian requirement violates the Constitution.
This case is a follow-up from Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer and Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which both dealt with the question of whether states can exclude organizations and schools from receiving public benefits simply because they are religious. Each case was decided favorably for religious liberty.
The ERLC has filed several briefs in this case, both asking the Supreme Court to hear this case, and then asking the Court to rule in favor of David and Amy Carson, a Christian couple who want to send their daughter, Olivia, to the Christian school where they both attended.
In these briefs, the ERLC argued that Maine’s public education system, especially in light of how Maine defended its system in the courts, does not merely exclude religious schools — it discriminates against them. We urged the Supreme Court to adopt a per se rule against religious discrimination. If a state discriminates against any religion, courts should immediately strike down the law rather than applying any kind of balancing test with state interests.
Families and students should not lose access to the public square because of their religious beliefs. Denying state tuition aid to people of faith violates the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment by undermining their individual choice and inhibiting the free exercise of their religion.
The First Amendment not only protects religious beliefs, but also the right to live out those beliefs — which includes giving and receiving educational instruction from religious institutions. Allowing parents to use state tuition aid to send their children to religious schools is not a funding or establishment of religion, nor is it an entanglement of church and state.