This week, the Supreme Court delivered its opinion in Carson v. Makin, a case involving a Maine law prohibiting public funding of religious schools. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, struck down Maine’s law, saying it improperly discriminated against religion.
This decision is an abomination, although entirely predictable given the conservative majority and the steady erosion of the separation between church and state. We are gradually drifting into the very type of state-backed religion that the United States was created to avoid.
Previous Supreme Court cases, including Lutheran Trinity and Espinoza, allowed public funds to be given to religious schools on the basis of non-religious use of the money; for example the resurfacing of a playground in the Lutheran Trinity Case. But it has no such limitation.
Roberts surprisingly argued that there is no real distinction between a school’s religious status and its use of funds for religious purposes. The fact that the Chief Justice could not see such a distinction shows how far we have drifted. I suspect he and his fellow Tories would also accept government grants to support communion and baptism.
The worst ramification of this decision will be that taxpayer funds will go to institutions that teach creationism, that homosexuality is abnormal, that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a mortal sin, and other primitive and harmful bigotry. Many religious schools, including Maine’s, also discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in enrollment and hiring. Would the court so easily approve a program in which public funds support private schools that deny enrollment or employment to blacks? I guess not, at least for now, but I ask you to ask yourself if it really is different.
Although on a small scale – for now – it’s hard to see this as anything other than government endorsement of religion and discrimination.
It’s been a long time coming. Cases just waiting for that court majority lined up at the door like technicians outside an Apple Store salivating over the latest release.
For several decades, an important motivation of the architects of charter schools and voucher programs was to do secular public education through and through and to create a patchwork of religious schools supported by taxpayer dollars. To this end, “foundations” were created to provide “scholarships” rather than directly supporting religious schools. “We only provide tuition support for students,” they claim. “It’s the families who choose the school, not us.” These scams will not even be necessary after this decision.
Make no mistake about it. This is part of a culture war, not some arcane legal decision. Millions of Americans despise “government schools” which, in their confused view, teach socialism, atheism and other radical leftist ideologies. Whether it’s not true doesn’t matter at all.
These people want Christian prayer in all schools; they want children to learn American exceptionalism, not the truth; they want to push back on diversity and equity; they want to teach creationism and intelligent design alongside or instead of evolution; they despise the notion of a hetero-non-binary approach to gender and sexuality. And they want you and me to pay for it.
Even real public schools are in danger. All the “parents’ rights” nonsense is being pushed by those who want the kind of schools I described above. School boards across the country are being taken over by far-right activists who want their public schools to stop teaching the truth and start teaching the educational equivalent of Fox News.
We are understandably distracted by insurgency, pandemic, inflation and mass murder. But the long game is played in education. If we lose the secular, democratizing and civilizing institution of public education, we will never find it again. It has been a distinctive feature of our republic and has enabled the fusion of remarkable diversity into a nation of imperfect beauty.
This decision, I fear, will hasten the bitter divisions that could be our undoing.