Religion is under fire, especially in education. Students are permitted to pray and learn, but little encouragement exists. In some states, discouragement prevails, blocking tuition assistance to families who have no public school option and sending children to religiously affiliated schools. The Supreme Court in 2022 will rule on whether that is right.
Last December, the High Court heard arguments in Carson v. Makin, a case testing whether a State – Maine – can block tuition assistance to families where public education is not available, and parents send children to a religious-affiliated school. See, e.g., Special: Carson v. Makin; Opinion: How religious can your religious school actually be?; Carson v. Makin;
Two families sued Maine “after they were denied tuition assistance because they wanted to use it to pay for Christian private schools that would use the funding for religious instruction,” on top of wider academic education. See, e.g., Carson v. Makin.
The First Circuit sided with Maine, saying religious schools can be excluded from receiving taxpayer money if it also supports religious teaching. The Supreme Court is now on it.
Points seldom made, but which deserve notice are these. First, the larger academic purpose of religiously affiliated schools – harkening back to a time in America when virtually all schools were religiously affiliated – is to teach skills. The religious context grounds life skill teaching.
Second, public schools today – and with federal money – teach all sorts of religious topics and practices, including Islamic practices, beliefs, and history. The distinction between teaching “about” a religion and teaching it is narrow, as indicated by federal grants that – remarkably in a majority Christian country – fund the teaching of an idolized or sanitized version of Islam. See, e.g., Islamic School Walked Away from Nearly $1M in Federal Funding Because of Trump.
Third, to exclude from tuition assistance schools which are centered on religious teaching as context for learning life skills, such as math, reading, science, history, social studies, languages, and dozens of other disciplines – is tantamount to reverse discrimination. The alternative is to imagine religion does not matter, does not play a major role in value formation, or exists.
Fourth, the Maine case should be easy, since it can be narrowly decided. The public purpose of educating children – where there is no public school – must be placed against incremental risk that a parent chooses a school religiously affiliated, thus with religious learning.
The parent is making that decision. The state has failed to offer an alternative, and the learning done is not purely religious – i.e., seminary – just nested in a value system elevating religious principles. The value system is not secular, but our Constitution is not hostile to religion.
The counterpoint is that parents and children are not exercising First Amendment rights to “free exercise” – that is, learning in a religious context – but allowing the state to “establish” a religion.
In practice, that is nonsense, since the absence of a public school means an alternative must be found, and private schools – especially religiously affiliated – tend to offer quality education.
Moreover, they may be Christian or another sort, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or some other recognized religion. No one religion is being promoted nationally.
So, what is really going on? The answer is that the First Circuit and Maine authorities hear footsteps. Rather than recognizing religious affiliation is common, and these schools often offer superior academic education, they default to “shunning religion.” That is wrong.
In truth, roughly 34,576 private schools exist, many with affiliations. A third have religious affiliations and are of high quality. Their numbers are growing, not for available public schools but as a result of disaffection with public education. See, e.g., Private School Universe Survey (PSS); The 15 Biggest Failures of the American Public Education System; Criticism of schooling.
This has to do with COVID, “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), and the insertion of politics into public schools. See, e.g., During Covid, more families switch to private school from public education; During Covid, more families switch to private school from public education; Private Schooling Status Update: Things Keep Looking Up.
All this makes insensible the decision to deny a family tuition credit in a relatively poor state, like Maine, when parents are simply seeking the best education for their child, and a public school is not within range, while a private school – in this case religiously affiliated – is.
Final Point: I grew up in rural Maine. No rural high school existed in my town. The town paid an adjoining town to permit “tuition students” to attend their high school. No private, religious high school existed within striking range.
But given the absence of immediate public options, if a private, religious school had existed, would it have been unconstitutional – somehow wrong – for the town to have assisted my family to attend that school?
The answer, intuitively, is no. The overwhelming objective of high schools, public and private, is to teach life skills. Religiously affiliated schools do that well, evidenced by college admissions.
The case pending before the High Court will test whether common sense, a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution, and net benefit of assisting families – including those sending kids to a religiously affiliated schools – prevails or implicit hostility to religious values prevails.
The hope – based on history, law, parental rights, and value-educated electorate – is that the High Court will reverse the First Circuit. If that happens the Maine families in question will be assisted, along with those who need aid to attend public schools.
To be clear, the historic moral compass and alignment of public education with values found in the Bible and other religions is fading. That is a serious concern, not one this case will resolve.
To keep a Republic premised on “the good,” we must have citizens educated on what that means, where good values come from, why they matter. We cannot abandon what got us here. We must be bold, unapologetic, and celebrate it – since that is how we nurture and preserve the future.