One of the Supreme Court’s biggest blows to church/state separation in the past term has effectively achieved nothing. The bang became a whimper because the conservative Christians in Maine who wanted taxpayer money to fund religious schools have now realized they’re better off on their own.
Carson v. Makin involved a voucher program that allowed students in rural parts of Maine to have access to free education, even if that meant attending a private school. The state already said it would cover private school tuition, even at church-run schools, as long as the education students received was secular in nature. But a lawsuit was filed by parents who wanted to send their kids to Christian schools that, among other things, promoted Creationism and discriminating against LGBTQ people in hiring.
The Supreme Court said in its ruling that the state was forbidden from discriminating against those schools on the basis of religion… which meant taxpayers would theoretically have to pay for religious indoctrination. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in her dissent, “Today, the Court leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.”
But as I covered earlier on OnlySky, lawmakers in Maine anticipated this outcome and took quick action to make the Supreme Court’s ruling toothless, at least in their state. Rather than stick with the previous law that banned money from going to explicitly religious schools, which was clearly in legal jeopardy, they passed a new law forbidding any taxpayer dollars from going to schools that discriminated against people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. (More specifically, they expanded their anti-discrimination law to protect LGBTQ people—including at schools that are part of the voucher program.)
With that simple move, Christian schools that wanted taxpayer funding were now eligible for it (because of the Supreme Court’s ruling)… but it raised a much larger (and brand new) question: What matters more to the Christian schools at the center of this legal battle, Temple Academy in Waterville and Bangor Christian Schools? Taxpayer-funded tuition dollars or faith-based bigotry?
Both schools already told the Supreme Court that bigotry was vital to their mission and that they would not alter how they operated in order to receive public funding.
Looks like they’re sticking by their hateful beliefs. The Associated Press’ David Sharp reports that only one Christian school that stood to gain from the Supreme Court’s decision is opting into the voucher program—and it’s not even one of the schools that filed the lawsuit. Everyone else has decided they would rather discriminate than take state funding.
“Their hands are tied. The state said you can take the money, but we’ll tie your hands,” said David Carson, whose daughter was a sophomore at Bangor Christian Schools when his family and two other plaintiffs sued in 2018.
Last year, 29 private schools participated in the tuition reimbursement program, enrolling more than 4,500 students, officials said. Those schools that meet the state’s criteria can get about $12,000 per student in taxpayer funding.
So far, only one religious school has signed up to participate, and that application will go through a review process, said Marcus Mrowka, a state education spokesperson. Mrowka declined to identify the school.
The deadline for applications is Thursday.
The obvious takeaway here is that no matter how many awful decisions this right-wing Supreme Court makes, it’s possible for states with sensible lawmakers to work around the problem. We’ve already seen that in action when it comes to reproductive freedom. It’s not easy and it’s not going to be the case everywhere, but an ultra-conservative Court doesn’t always have to have the last word if lawmakers take swift action.
Keep in mind that this response works in Maine, but it won’t be possible everywhere. Several other states have similar voucher programs but do not have anti-discrimination clauses built into the law. It’s up to those lawmakers to make sure Christian bigotry is not rewarded with their state’s money. And it’s up to voters to keep pressure on them until that is codified.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)