Opinion: Supreme Court not about to equalize public, religious schools

Those looking with blinders at last week's United States Supreme Court ruling in a Maine case involving funding for schools got plenty of help from the rush-to-judgment media.

> Reuters: "U.S. Supreme Court backs public money for religious schools"

> NBC: "Supreme Court OKs use of public money for religious education"

> Time: "Supreme Court Says Taxpayer Money Can Go to Religious Schools"

And on it went.

Readers who didn't delve much further than the headline (or didn't read deeper when the decision was overshadowed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade a few days later) likely would now believe the high court has put religious schools on the same footing as public schools in every way, shape and form, and in all corners of the country. That, in fact, would cause a lot of ripples.

But it's not so.

The Carson v. Makin case is simply this: In a rural area of Maine, where there are no public high schools, the state has a small voucher program that pays tuition for students to attend a secular private school. However, by state law, the voucher could not be used for a religious private school. Two families filed suit because they felt the law was wrong.

To think about the decision using area schools, let's say Chattanooga was a rural community in Maine with no public high schools and only two private schools - Baylor, which calls itself on its website an independent prep school, and Notre Dame High School, which refers to itself as a private, Roman Catholic college-preparatory day school.

Both schools are private, accredited, college-prep schools, but the state's law would have permitted money for the voucher program for Baylor but not for Notre Dame.

"The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools - so long as the schools are not religious," wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion for the 6-3 majority. "That is discrimination against religion."

In his decision, he reiterated something he said in a 2020 decision: "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."

What Maine was doing, Roberts wrote, violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion.

Nothing in the high court decision said money for Tennessee public schools, or Kansas public schools, or North Dakota public schools, would begin flowing to religious private schools in those states.

Nothing in the decision said money for Georgia religious education, or Alabama religious education, would be funded by public money.

Instead, as in the aforementioned 2020 ruling and in many cases during his tenure, Roberts preferred that the resolution of the cases be narrowly tailored. The 2020 case involved Montana, its educational tax credit and the upshot that states can't disqualify schools from public aid based on their religious status or affiliation.

If it has an effect on Tennessee at all, it would probably be to ensure that Gov. Bill Lee's limited voucher program for Shelby and Davidson counties that recently was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court would allow eligible parents in those counties to send their children to either secular or religious private schools. The 2019 Education Savings Account Act passed the legislature in 2019 but has never gone into effect because it was immediately challenged by lawsuits.

Something similar may yet happen in Maine. The two private religious schools the plaintiff parents wanted their children to attend are said to have policies that discriminate against staff and students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Meanwhile, the Maine Human Right Act bans discriminating against someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability. On the other side, though, is the Supreme Court's upholding in recent years of religious liberty in a number of cases.

So, before the first voucher for a religious school is issued in Maine, another lawsuit may ensue.

Further, some believe the court ruling will open the door wider for public money for private schools or religious charter schools.

We hope if the decision does anything that it continues to signal those who run the nation's public schools how desperate people are for school choice, for not viewing public education the same way it's been viewed for a century and for a more level playing field for all types of schools.