The Supreme Court just took a sledgehammer to the separation of church and state

A 6-3 ruling in ‘Carson v. Makin’ will force taxpayers to pay alms to religious institutions

click to enlarge The Supreme Court of the United States, the most powerful arbiter of the U.S. Constitution, is now forcing states to subsidize religious education — which, of course, is odd considering the First Amendment. - Shutterstock
The Supreme Court of the United States, the most powerful arbiter of the U.S. Constitution, is now forcing states to subsidize religious education — which, of course, is odd considering the First Amendment.

Taxpayers in Maine will now be forced to support private schools that explicitly teach religion.

At issue in Carson v. Makin was a state law requiring local communities to educate children in extremely rural communities that cannot support their own public high schools. It requires these communities to address the shortage in one of two ways: to contract with the closest public schools, or to pay private schools to educate children so long as the institution is a "nonsectarian school in accordance with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."

The law was challenged by two families who wanted to leverage the public tuition funding to send their children to religious schools. They argued that the law violated their right to exercise their religion freely. Both schools in question were Christian — one seeks to inculcate "within each student a Christian worldview and Christian philosophy of life," the other integrates "biblical principles with their teaching in every subject."

The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling breaking on ideological lines, ruled in favor of the families. "A state need not subsidize private education," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious."

The Court had ruled in a similar case from Montana in 2020. Between this case and that one, the Court took a giant leap. While the courts have held that states are allowed to subsidize religious education should they choose, it now holds that they are not allowed to exclude them.

In short, the Supreme Court of the United States, the most powerful arbiter of the U.S. Constitution, is now forcing states to subsidize religious education. Which, of course, is odd considering what the First Amendment of that very document says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Forcing a state government to subsidize religious institutions seems awfully close to "establishment of religion."

Now, perhaps someone might argue that so long as this applies to any religion, then it wouldn't amount to the state sponsoring a religion. But there are three flaws with this line of reasoning. First, the de facto reality — as is the case with the two institutions at issue in the Carson case — is that this would be used to fund Christian schools in nearly all of the circumstances in which this would apply. Indeed, it's worth imagining what might happen if a Muslim or Hindu school were to receive funds under the exact same ruling. It's almost needless to say that proponents of this ruling would try to find ways to exclude these schools.

The second major flaw is that it leverages the state's power to tax to compel people who otherwise would not support religious education to do exactly that. Indeed, there are going to be many people in Maine who do not agree with the teachings of private religious schools who are now going to be paying for them.

The third flaw is that it ignores the ways that religious schools often operate within the frame of religious institutions. Are taxpayers now required to provide funding for a church that operates a school?

We can also examine this from the perspective of the majority's own reasoning: that excluding religious schools would be discriminating on the basis of religion. Does barring taxpayer dollars from being spent on religious education actually prevent someone from obtaining religious education? No. Does it stop them from practicing their faith? No. Does it prevent a religious person from getting their (non-religious) education paid for by the state? No.

Rather, it's the ruling itself that infringes on religious liberty. In forcing taxpayers to pay for religious education, the Court will infringe upon the religious liberties of those taxpayers now required to fund religious education with which they may not agree — they will, in effect, be forced to pay alms to religious institutions with which they disagree.

The tragedy is this is only one in a series of rulings that are expected from this Court that, in the name of "religious liberty," will do more to undermine that liberty than protect it.

Originally published June 22 in The Incision. Get more at

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About The Author

Abdul El-Sayed

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is a physician, epidemiologist, public health expert, and progressive activist who served as Detroit’s health director and ran for governor in 2018. He is the author of Healing Politics: A Doctor's Journey Into the Heart of Our Political Epidemic and Medicare for All: A Citizen's Guide, as well...
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