SCOTUS says taxpayer funds can support religious education

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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court handed down five decisions yesterday morning with one that could have very serious implications for the separation of church and state. Though the decision could possibly provide positive outcomes for Pagan educational institutions looking for state funding.

Image credit: elizabethaferry from Pixabay

The case Carson v. Makin focused on the state of Maine’s system it uses to provide free public education to school-aged children.

In some rural and sparsely populated areas of  Maine, school districts do not run their own secondary schools. Rather, they offer the options of either sending students to other public or private schools designated by the district, or they can choose to pay tuition at the public or private school that each student selects.

However, state law only allows government funds to be used at nonsectarian schools or those schools that do not provide religious instruction.

Chief Justice Roberts in the majority opinion for the court wrote, “The question
presented is whether this restriction violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

The Court concluded that Maine’s program does, in fact, violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

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

The conservative members of the court, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett all joined Roberts in the decision.

In essence, the ruling will potentially result in taxpayer dollars being given to support religious education.

Roughly 60% of the adult population in Maine identifies as Christian, while 7% identify as belonging to a minority non-Christian belief system, and nearly a third or 31% identify as unaffiliated or as “religious nones” according to the most recent surveying in 2014 by Pew Research Center.

Image credit: Peter Fitzgerald – Own work based on PD USG maps – CC BY 3.0

Perhaps even more interesting is that 80% of those surveyed responded that they seldom or never attended prayer, scripture study, or a religious education group. And only 22% said they attend some form of religion once a week.

Justice Stephen Breyer filed an 18-page dissent, that was joined by Justice Elena Kagan and, in part, by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Breyer in his strongly worded dissent opened with, “The First Amendment begins by forbidding the government from ‘mak[ing] [any] law respecting an establishment of religion.’ It next forbids them to make any law ‘prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ The Court today pays almost no attention to the words in the first Clause while giving almost exclusive attention to the words in the second.”

He clearly pointed out how the Court’s decision today is likely to create more conflict when it comes to religion rather than less, “Here I simply note the increased risk of religiously based social conflict when government promotes religion in its public school system. ‘[T]he prescription of prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, during and as part of the curricular day, involving young impressionable children whose school attendance is statutorily compelled,’ can ‘give rise to those very divisive influences and inhibitions of freedom which both religion clauses of the First Amendment’ sought to prevent.”

Justice Breyer concludes “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. 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 Religion Clauses give Maine the right to honor that neutrality by choosing not to fund religious schools as part of its public school tuition program. I believe the majority is wrong to hold the contrary. And with respect, I dissent.”

Justice Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent that concluded with, “What a difference five years makes. In 2017, I feared that the Court was ‘lead[ing] us . . . to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.’ Trinity Lutheran, 582 U. S., at ___ (dissenting opinion) (slip op., at 27). Today, the Court leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation. 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. With growing concern for where this Court will lead us next, I respectfully dissent.”

The Roberts Court, April 23, 2021 .Seated from left to right: Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr. and Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor .Standing from left to right: Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett. .Photograph by Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

The question for the Pagan and Pagan-adjacent communities is whether or not this decision might offer some level of benefit.

Holli Emore, Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary told TWH, “Having worked in the diocese of Vermont in my consulting past, I well understand the difficulties of sustaining public schools in a sparsely populated area with a tiny tax base. But I do not think this ruling addresses the problem, which is really about whether or not states are going to take care of all their students, or just force parents to move to a more populous county for the sake of the schools.”

Emore continued, “Living as I do in South Carolina where there is a private religious school on every corner (it feels), I know that they will be moving quickly to pounce on funding now that they have this Supreme Court ruling to support their case. Since education is critical to democracy, because people need to be able to read and engage in critical thinking in order to vote or hold office, I consider this ruling a further erosion of our already threatened democracy.”

On the question of whether it might benefit Pagans, Emore said, “Yes, it might help a Pagan school somewhere, but how many Pagan religious grade schools are actually out there meeting state education requirements? When that bridge comes along we can talk about whether it is worth the price of allowing our tax dollars to go to schools teaching their students a potentially corrosive religious worldview.”

One solution proposed by Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is to end all private school vouchers. In a statement released yesterday Laser said:

“The ultra-conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court continues to redefine the constitutional promise of religious freedom for all as religious privilege for a select few.

“The court is forcing taxpayers to fund religious education. This nation was built on the promise of religious freedom, which has always prevented the state from using its taxing power to force citizens to fund religious worship or education. Here, the court has violated that founding principle by requiring Maine to tax citizens to fund religious schools. Far from honoring religious freedom, this decision tramples the religious freedom of everyone. Worse, the court has opened the door to government-enforced tithing, an invitation religious extremists will not ignore.

“The court’s ultra-conservative bloc argued that refusing to tax citizens to fund religion is ‘discrimination against religion.’ It’s nothing less than gaslighting to cloak this assault on our Constitution in the language of non-discrimination. If the conservative justices were concerned with discrimination, they would not have issued this opinion because it forces taxpayers to fund two religious schools that discriminate against LGBTQ families, one barring their admission and the other forcing them to undergo ‘counseling’ and renounce their sexual orientation or gender identity, or be expelled. One school’s stated educational objective is to ‘refute the teachings of the Islamic religion with the truth of God’s word’ – and now Muslim taxpayers will be forced to fund that school.

“The court appears concerned with discrimination only when conservative Christians make the claim, and often, as here, in ways that further discrimination. Where was the concern for discrimination in the draft opinion that seeks to abolish reproductive freedom, imposing that conservative Christianity on us all, regardless of our personal religion or lack thereof? Or when the court rubber-stamped a conservative Christian’s discrimination against a recently engaged, same-sex couple in Colorado? Or when the Trump administration banned Muslims from entering the country?

“This opinion hangs on Maine’s earlier decision to send public money to private schools. Such programs will force taxpayers to fund religious education and discrimination. It’s time to end all public funding for private schools, especially vouchers. Public funds should go to public schools.

“Now, more than ever before, Americans United is committed to defending true religious freedom and public education from the assault mounted by religious extremists.”

Retired attorney, Hecate Demetersdatter said, “This is a bad decision handed down by a Supreme Court intent on tearing down the wall of separation that our founders constructed between the State and religion.”

She also pointed to the tax dollar impact the ruling will have, “It will take tax dollars from public schools and give them to schools run by religious extremists teaching white nationalism, misogyny, hatred of LGBTQ Americans, and gun fetishism. Meanwhile, those religious institutions pay no taxes.”

Hecate Demetersdatter highlighted both the need for people to vote and to vote for candidates that will reflect the values and policies they want to see put in place.

“The solution to this is to vote in every election and to vote against Republicans. This decision also points out the need for Court Reform,” she said.

She continued by outlining some of the policies she believes will make a difference moving forward.

“We need 13 justices to match the 13 Circuit Courts we now have. We need a Code of Ethics for the Supreme Court so that, for example, Scalia can’t rule on a case involving his hunting buddy or Thomas can’t rule on a case involving his wife. More justices will facilitate this,” Hecate Demetersdatter continued, “We need term limits; I’ve proposed 25 years. That’s long enough to make your mark and to feel safe from political reprisals.  And we need a clear and exact rule about how close to an election a president may appoint a new justice.”

She concluded with, “Meanwhile, I  hope Wiccans, other Pagans, and Satanists are setting up religious schools and demanding the same tax dollars as the Christian extremists can now get.”

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