Dec 8 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to hear a challenge by two Christian families to a Maine tuition assistance program that excludes private schools that promote religious beliefs, giving its conservative justices a chance to further expand public funding of religiously based entities.
The nine justices will hear an appeal and by the families of a lower court ruling rejecting their claim that the Maine program singles them out for religious discrimination in violation of the U.S. Constitution including its First Amendment protection of the free exercise of religion.
The families want taxpayer dollars to send their children to two Christian schools that integrate religion into their classrooms and have policies against gay and transgender students and staff. The First Amendment also prohibits government endorsement of any particular religion.
The case comes to the Supreme Court on the heels of its 2020 ruling in a case from Montana that paved the way for more taxpayer dollars to flow to religious schools.
The eventual ruling in the Maine case could further erode the separation of church and state in the United States. Expanding religious rights has been a priority in recent years for the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority.
The Montana ruling, which involved an educational tax credit, prevented states from disqualifying schools from public aid based on their religious status or affiliation. The Maine case goes further, with the possibility looming of requiring states that subsidize private education to also fund religious activities.
Maine is backed in the case by President Joe Biden’s administration, public school boards and teacher unions. The state has said it excludes certain private schools not because they are religious but because they would use public funds to promote religious beliefs.
The families contend that restricting taxpayer dollars from being used for religious purposes is discriminatory. They asked the justices to consider overruling a 2004 Supreme Court precedent in a case called Locke v. Davey that upheld a Washington state post-secondary grant program that excluded theology students.
In some sparsely populated areas that lack public secondary schools, Maine lets public funds be used to pay for tuition at certain private schools of a family’s choice. The schools must be “nonsectarian” and are excluded only if they promote a particular religion and present material “through the lens of that faith.”
Two sets of parents – David and Amy Carson, and Troy and Angela Nelson – sued the state in 2018 in federal court.
The Nelsons would like to use the tuition aid to send their son to a Christian school called Temple Academy in Waterville, but instead use it to send him to a secular private high school. The Carsons paid out-of-pocket to send their daughter to Bangor Christian Schools in Maine’s third-largest city.
Both of the schools involved are private and fully accredited schools. They describe themselves as seeking to instill a “Biblical worldview” in students, according to court records. They will not admit gay or transgender students, or hire gay teachers. Bangor Christian Schools also teaches that a “husband is the leader of the household” and includes a class in which students learn to “refute the teachings of the Islamic religion with the truth of God’s Word.”
The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the families last year, deciding that Supreme Court precedents do not forbid states from barring public funds from religious entities based on how those dollars would be used.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)