The Supreme Court Can End a Century of Anti-Religion Discrimination | Opinion

The state of Maine isn't a place we normally associate with religious bigotry. Yet something unpleasant lies beneath its seemingly reasonable law allowing parents to direct public funding such that they can send their children to a school of their choice.

For more than a century, Maine has had a program that allows parents in remote areas of the state to send their children to the public or private schools of their choice. But in 1981, it decided to restrict parents' options by declaring that no money should go to "sectarian" schools. Meaning, of course, Christian ones.

Now, finally, Christian parents in Maine are pushing back against the state's attempt to stigmatize their religious beliefs. This story starts with the Carsons, who wanted to send their daughter to the Christian school in Bangor that they had attended growing up (the Carsons are high school sweethearts). Under Maine's laws, they were eligible to receive tuition assistance, but the state rejected their school choice. Essentially, Maine public officials told the Carsons that they knew more about how their daughter should be educated than the family did.

Many families would have given up, but the Carsons decided to fight this injustice. They chose to defend their rights, in conjunction with the Nelson family, who faced similar discrimination. While two separate lower courts, including the First Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled against the families, the Supreme Court decided to hear the case—Carson v. Makin—and will issue its decision in the coming weeks.

Supreme Court building
The US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on March 21, 2022. - The US Senate takes up the historic nomination on March 21, 2022 of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Stefani Reynolds / AFP/Getty Images

The Court's decision will affect much more than a single program in Maine. Currently, 37 states have discriminatory laws that prevent them from distributing any money to religious schools, even if all other schools are eligible for state funding. These laws are called "Blaine Amendments," named for former Maine congressman and Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine. In the period following the Civil War, anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly against Catholic immigrants, ran high. Many saw the newcomers as poor, uneducated and loyal to a foreign power—the pope. Blaine, motivated by aspirations to the presidency, pushed for a constitutional amendment that would permanently ban government funds from ever going to "sectarian" schools. "Sectarian," at the time, was often code for "Catholic."

Although Blaine's amendment failed, many states passed miniature versions—and, unlike Blaine himself, they had a poisonous anti-Catholic agenda. They wanted to destroy Catholic schools. Maine wasn't one of them initially, but, almost a century after the failure of the constitutional amendment, it enacted its own "sectarian" ban, driven by a more general anti-religious impulse. And that impulse persists. Maine rejected the schools chosen by the Carson and Nelson families, not because of the quality of those schools' education but because they hold traditional Christian views on sexuality.

The rhetoric surrounding the case has grown increasingly nasty. Activists are trying to smear the religious schools and families as "bigoted" and "prejudiced." They know that a ruling for the families will reverberate across the nation. Parents should unquestionably be allowed to decide how their children are educated, but this basic principle has been rejected in far too many states. As more and more states look to enact vouchers and other school choice initiatives, they must allow parents true school choice.

Advocates of religious liberty have good reason to hope that Carson will bring an end to a century of bigotry. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Montana parents who were denied school choice. Montana's legislature had passed a tax credit program to incentivize donations to state-endorsed scholarship programs. In order to comply with the state's Blaine amendment, the Montana tax office said students could not use scholarships at religious schools. The Supreme Court rejected this restriction, explaining that "a State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious."

Politicians in Maine seem to have missed the memo. Now they need to be reminded of it in unequivocal language.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the Director of the Conscience Project.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.