Supreme Court Rules Maine Cannot Bar Religious Schools From Tuition Assistance Program

Last Updated on June 22, 2022

The Supreme Court overturned a Maine law on Tuesday that bars religious institutions from receiving state tuition assistance set aside for private institutions. The court found that it “penalizes the free exercise” of religion in the state.

Justices voted 6-3 to strike down the law in a ruling Tuesday. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that Maine’s tuition scholarship program — which pays for some students to attend “nonsectarian” private schools when there are no public schools in their area — “operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.”

The Supreme Court decision came four years after two Maine families sued the state after they were not permitted to receive tuition assistance that they planned to put towards sending their children to private Christian schools.

The tuition assistance stipulation was initially held up by the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals, which argued that the state was not violating anyone’s constitutional rights. The three-judge panel included retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, according to the New York Post.

Tuesday’s decision overturned that ruling and could have immediate impacts in nearby Vermont, which has a similar program.

Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, claiming that overturning the law would violate the principle of separation of church and state.

“Maine wishes to provide children within the State with a secular, public education. This wish embodies, in significant part, the constitutional need to avoid spending public money to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion,” wrote Breyer. “That need is reinforced by the fact that we are today a Nation of more than 330 million people who ascribe to over 100 different religions. In that context, state neutrality with respect to religion is particularly important.”

The ruling could also renew the push for school choice in a number of states. “I expect that religious groups in rural states will lobby legislators to implement similar tuition assistance programs that already exist in Vermont and Maine,” Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University Teachers College, told the New York Post.

“They never had reason to do so before. Now the Supreme Court has said such restrictions are unconstitutional,” he added.

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