Chief Justice John Roberts wrote to the majority: “Maine’s ‘non-denominational’ requirement for generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.” “Regardless of how the benefits and limitations are described, the program works to identify and exclude schools that are otherwise eligible on the basis of their religious practice.”
It is a loss for critics who say the decision would further erode the separation of church and state. Although only one state, Vermont, has a similar program, the court’s ruling could inspire other states to pass similar programs.
Steve Vladeck, a CNN Supreme Court analyst and a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said “today’s ruling puts states in a difficult position” if they choose to offer school education assistance programs.
“Although it is framed as a school choice provision, it is difficult to see how this would not have implications on a much broader scale than government benefit programs – which puts the government in the awkward position of having to choose between direct funding of religious activity or no provision of funding. Not at all,” Vladik said.
In response to Breyer’s assertion of “government neutrality,” Roberts wrote that “there is nothing impartial about the Maine programme.”
“The state pays tuition fees for some students in private schools – as long as they are not religious,” he said.
“This is discrimination against religion,” Roberts said.
He added that “Maine’s administration of that benefit is subject to the Free Practice Principles that govern any such public benefit program – including the prohibition against denying the benefit on the basis of the recipient’s religious practice.”
Sotomayor, in opposition to her part, placed Tuesday’s ruling in the context of the court’s other recent moves to expand religious freedom, while accusing the court of dismantling “the wall of separation between church and state that the founders struggled to build.”
The majority, she wrote, did so by “adopting arguments from previous separate writings and ignoring decades of precedent that give governments flexibility in overcoming the tension between clauses of debt.”
“As a result, in just a few years, the Court has turned constitutional doctrine on its head, moving from a rule that allows states to withhold funding for religious organizations to a rule that in many circumstances obliges states to support religious indoctrination with taxpayer money,” Sotomayor said. .
Governors and religious organizations praised the ruling, including the Federation of American Orthodox Jewish Churches, which filed a memo in the case.
“This Supreme Court ruling opens the door to state and local advocacy efforts in key places like New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere,” said Murray Litwak, executive director of the Orthodox Union Teaching Coalition.
Kelly Shackleford, President, CEO and Senior Advisor to the First Liberty Institute, called the ruling “a great day for religious freedom in America.”
“We are pleased that the court has once again affirmed that religious discrimination will not be tolerated in this country,” Shackleford said in a statement. “Parents in Maine and all over the country can now choose the best education for their children without fear of government retribution.”
This story has been updated with additional details.