I’m thinking, of course, of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ignoring a whole lot of convincing argument, the court’s far-right majority upended decades of settled law with breathtaking speed and arrogance. In a week’s time, it:
It’s no surprise that the Supreme Court has taken another step to support public funding of religion. It had already been moving that direction with rulings in 2017 and 2020. But today’s decision, in Carson v. Makin, is still a big deal, and it leaves open several questions for the court to address.
The court ruled today that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a small program that provides tuition vouchers for students in isolated rural areas to attend private secondary schools. Doing so, it said, violates the First Amendments requirement of religious freedom.
“The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious,” Chief Justice John Roberts writes for the 6-3 majority. “That is discrimination against religion.”
It was a big deal when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled just 20 years ago that states could legally provide tuition vouchers for students to attend private, religious schools. Now the court is poised to take a more radical step.
It’s likely to rule that denying public funding to religious schools is unconstitutional, at least in some circumstances. The question is, how far will the ruling go? Experts expect the court to overturn a Maine program that pays for student tuition at some private schools but excludes religious schools. But the decision could be written to apply more broadly.
The case, Carson v. Makin, involves a program that affects a handful of rural Maine school districts that are too small to support a local high school. The state pays for students in those areas to attend a nearby public school or private school. In 1980, citing concerns about separation of church and state, Maine barred religious schools from participating.
Parents eventually sued, arguing that denying them funding to attend a religious school was discriminatory and violated the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. The court heard oral arguments in December 2021 and is expected to issue its decision this month.
Here’s a topic that hasn’t come up but probably should in the debates over Amy Coney Barrett’s likely tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court: public funding of private schools that discriminate.
Barrett served from 2015-17 on the board of Trinity School at Greenlawn, a South Bend Catholic school, the New York Times reported. Trinity had a policy during Barrett’s time on the board that effectively prohibited same-sex couples from enrolling their children in the school, according to the Times.
That would seem to cast doubt on Barrett’s claim in her confirmation hearing that she had “never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference” and would not do so. It also raises policy questions about whether publicly funded institutions should practice discrimination.
In the two years that Barrett was on the Trinity board, the school received over a half million dollars in Indiana voucher program funding. Since the start of the state’s voucher program, Trinity School at Greenlawn has received nearly $2 million in state support for student tuition.
Indiana established its school voucher program in 2011, providing state funding to help families pay tuition at private schools, most of which are religious schools. Students qualify for the program by family income and other factors.
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that teachers in Catholic schools fall under the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws, potentially stripping protection from thousands of church employees.
Supreme Court Building
The ruling could be a legal setback for counselors and a teacher at Indianapolis high schools who sued the local archdiocese after losing their jobs for being in same-sex marriages, although it’s too early to know for sure.
In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that two California elementary-school teachers performed “vital religious duties” even though they were lay teachers who were primarily responsible for teaching general academic subjects.
It’s bad enough that the Supreme Court took a wrecking ball Tuesday to the constitutions of 38 U.S. states. What’s truly discouraging is that it did so while vastly oversimplifying American history.
Supreme Court Building, West Pediment
The court ruled, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, that Montana couldn’t bar religious schools from participating in a “neo-voucher” program that provided state funding for scholarships to religious K-12 schools. In a 5-4 decision, the conservative majority ruled that barring religious schools was discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.
The majority opinion — and especially concurring opinions by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — framed the decision as a blow against anti-Catholic bias enshrined in state constitutions via 19th century “Blaine amendments.” But that view papers over complex history, said Steven K. Green, a legal scholar at Willamette University and a leading expert on church-state issues.
The Supreme Court came down heavily in support of religious education when it ruled today that a Montana voucher program that excluded religious schools was unconstitutional. I’ll write more later, but for now, here are a couple of points:
First, the decision doesn’t have any immediate impact on vouchers in Indiana. The Hoosier state, like Montana, has language in its constitution that bars state aid for religious institutions. But the Indiana Supreme Court got around the provision by reasoning that vouchers go to parents, not private schools.
The Supreme Court delivered a huge victory for LGBTQ rights Monday. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to help teachers and counselors who were fired by Indianapolis Catholic schools for their sexual orientation.
Supreme Court Building
In a landmark 6-3 decision, the court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits job discrimination against gay or transgender employees.
“I think it’s a really big deal,” said Suzanne Eckes, an education law professor at Indiana University. “It’s just wonderful news for equity.”
The opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices, concluded that the law’s ban on discrimination by sex applies to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Counselors and teachers at Indianapolis Catholic high schools looked to have a solid case when they sued after being fired for being married to same-sex partners. But the legal ground may be shifting beneath them.
Arguments heard Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court could result in religious schools being given a blank check for widespread employment discrimination.
Supreme Court Building
“It’s important,” said Dan Conkle, a constitutional law expert at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “And depending on how the court decides, it could have pretty dramatic implications for parochial school teachers.”
The case heard Tuesday involves two fifth-grade teachers at California Catholic schools who said they were unjustly fired, one because of her age and the other because she needed time off for cancer treatment. The schools countered with the so-called ministerial exception, which says ministers and others who perform important religious functions aren’t covered by anti-discrimination laws.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 that the First Amendment created “a wall of separation between Church and State.” A case before the U.S. Supreme Court today could not only tear down that wall – it could declare that efforts by the states to enforce the wall are unconstitutional.
Supreme Court Building
The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, concerns a Montana program that provides tax credits for donating to tuition scholarships for private schools, most of which are religious schools. A type of school voucher program, it’s not as blatant as the Indiana program that directly funds tuition for students in religious schools, but it accomplishes the same purpose.