In Carson, two sets of parents in Maine claim that the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom actually requires the state to fund religious education at private schools with taxpayer dollars — as a substitute for public education. This interpretation flips the meaning of religious freedom on its head and threatens both true religious freedom and public education.
The case arose because some areas of the state are too rural to maintain traditional public schools. To meet its obligation under the state constitution to provide a public education to all students in the state, Maine offers public education through neighboring public schools or nearby secular private schools in these rural areas. But the two couples, represented by the Institute for Justice, argue that this program must fund religious education as well.
And not just any religious education. The problem here is even bigger than public funds paying for praying, as wrong as that is. Unlike public schools, private religious schools often do not honor civil rights protections, especially for LGBTQ people, women, students with disabilities, religious minorities and the nonreligious.
Both of the private religious schools at issue in Carson discriminate in admissions and employment against non-Christians and LGBTQ people.
Temple Academy bars admission to LGBTQ students and students with LGBTQ parents. Its hiring guidelines state that LGBTQ employees will be fired, explaining that “God recognize[s] homosexuals and other deviants as perverted.” At Bangor Christian School, students who come out as LGBTQ are required to undergo “counseling” and must renounce their sexual orientation or gender identity or face expulsion.
One of the listed objectives in a ninth-grade social studies class at Bangor Christian is to “refute the teachings of the Islamic religion with the truth of God’s word.” If the petitioners get their way, Muslim taxpayers in Maine are going to have to fund that teaching.
The case arrives as recent rulings have chipped away at church-state separation. Most recently, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court held that the state of Montana could not exclude schools from its private school voucher program solely because of their status as religious schools. But that decision stopped far short of saying the state was obligated to pay for religious instruction.
This is where the court — even a court that has been suspicious of anything that smacks of discrimination against religion — must draw the line. If not, it will violate one of the main principles that led our country’s founders to enshrine church-state separation in the Constitution in the first place: to ensure taxpayers are not forced to pay for the private religious education of others.
If the court were to agree with the parents, it would also be rejecting the will of three-quarters of the states, which long ago enacted clauses in their state constitutions and passed statutes specifically prohibiting public funding of religious education.
It’s doubly wrong to force taxpayers to fund a school that discriminates when the school is supposed to substitute for public education. A key virtue of public schools is that they are open to all students, regardless of religion, race, sexual orientation, gender identity or ability. Students should never be discriminated against or subjected to a religious test to access what is rightfully theirs.
The Institute for Justice claims that the state’s decision to fund only secular instruction amounts to discrimination against religion. But limiting the use of taxpayer dollars to secular education actually upholds the religious freedom of all citizens.
Imagine if states were required to fund religious teachings in every setting where they contract with private organizations to perform government services. Would people experiencing homelessness be required to attend religious services before they could be housed at the county-funded shelter? Would hungry people be subject to a religious test before they could be served a meal? Would people be forced to accept Jesus as their savior to receive addiction treatment?
That is not religious freedom — it’s religious coercion.
Each of us should get to decide how — and whether — to support religion. People of faith, and those of no religion, should not have to support the inculcation of beliefs with which they disagree. It is up to parents and religious communities to educate their children in their faith. Publicly funded schools should never serve that purpose.