As the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) approaches the close of a high-profile term, it delivered a decision on Tuesday, June 21, that could very well be a sign of things to come. In a 6-3 ruling, the Court struck down a Maine law that banned government subsidies to pay for religious education in schools.
Politico reports that the ruling was based on ideological lines, and it was determined that the law violated the constitutional religious freedom of students and their parents. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority decision, stating that the local government funds are “a neutral benefit program based on choices of private recipients.” Thus, using this money for religious education does not violate the Establishment Clause. He also stated, “Antiestablishment interest should not exclude people from a public benefit based on their religious stance.”
The Maine program was created for low-population local governments that could not run schools at specific grade levels. These municipalities paid for students to attend the public or private K-12 school of their choice. Yet to avoid government funds being used for religious purposes, the program has refused to pay for religious education since 1981. Roberts rejected Maine’s arguments in the case because the state focused on religious teachings rather than schools being run by a religious group.
In one of his final dissents before retirement, Justice Stephen Breyer offered a fiery rebuke to the majority opinion. Stating that SCOTUS seems to be “losing all interest in enforcing the Establishment Clause,” Breyer also commented that the Court was “opening Pandora’s box” with what is sure to be a hotly contested decision.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor also dissented. She expressed concern that the SCOTUS is “dismantling the wall between church and state” based on decisions she termed “government sponsorship of religious activity.”