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The U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo/JTA-Eric Thayer-Getty Images)

The Supreme Court just made sure religious institutions won’t be left out of government funding

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision prohibiting government from excluding religion and religious institutions from government funding programs.

This decision in Carson v. Makin follows on the heels of two other high court decisions in the last five years emphasizing that such exclusions constitute religious discrimination prohibited under the First Amendment. But what makes this decision important is its rejection of the so-called “status-use” distinction: government may not discriminate based on the mere religious status of an institution, but could discriminate if funds would be used for a religious purpose. That distinction had left the door open for government to prevent funding, available to other private institutions, from flowing to religious institutions — and in particular religious schools. Yesterday’s opinion closes that door.

At stake in Carson was Maine’s tuition assistance program. Over half the school districts in rural Maine do not have their own secondary schools. Maine solved this problem by allowing parents in those districts to select an approved private school for their children. In turn, the state would pay tuition to the parents’ chosen private school on the student’s behalf. However, Maine’s program expressly excluded “sectarian” schools from the tuition assistance program, even if they satisfied all other criteria for being an approved school.

RELATED: Supreme Court ruling in Maine school case could lead to broad public funding of religious schools, says Justice Breyer

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Supreme Court’s doctrine would have deemed it unconstitutional to include religious schools in such a program. At that time, the Court viewed nearly all funding of religion and religious institutions as violations of the separation of church and state. But at the turn of the millennium, the Supreme Court’s views shifted. Instead of viewing separation of church and state as requiring a general prohibition on the funding of religion, the Court’s decision emphasized that the doctrine simply required neutrality. That prohibited funding designed specifically for religious institutions, but allowed government to fund religious institutions alongside other comparable private institutions.

This shift, however, exposed the discrimination question at stake in yesterday’s decision. If government is now allowed to include religious institutions in funding programs on equal terms with other comparable private institutions, what happens when it refuses to do so? Is that sort of refusal the kind of religious discrimination that the First Amendment prohibits?

Michael A. Helfand
Michael A. Helfand

Michael A. Helfand is the Brenden Mann Foundation Chair in Law and Religion and Vice Dean for Faculty and Research at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law; Visiting Professor and Oscar M. Ruebhausen Distinguished Fellow at Yale Law School; and Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.


Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.