The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Maine’s ban on religious schools from the state’s tuition program, The New York Times reports.
The court voted 6-3, with all three liberal justices dissenting, to prohibit Maine from excluding religious schools from tuition aid.
"Maine's 'nonsectarian' requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. "Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise."
Legal expert Steve Vladeck told CNN the ruling “puts states in a difficult position.”
"Although framed as a school-choice ruling, it's hard to see how this won't have implications for a far wider range of state benefit programs -- putting government in the awkward position of having to choose between directly funding religious activity or not providing funding at all," Vladeck said.
The state allows rural communities without public secondary schools to either sign contracts with nearby public schools or pay tuition at a private school as long as it is “a nonsectarian school in accordance with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Two families sued over the law, arguing it violated their First Amendment rights.
Roberts and the conservative majority sided with the families, describing the law as “discrimination against religion.”
"Maine's administration of that benefit is subject to the free exercise principles governing any such public benefit program — including the prohibition on denying the benefit based on a recipient's religious exercise," Roberts wrote.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the ruling dismantles "the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build” by "embracing arguments from prior separate writings and ignoring decades of precedent affording governments flexibility in navigating the tension between the Religion Clauses."
"As a result, in just a few years, the Court has upended constitutional doctrine, shifting from a rule that permits States to decline to fund religious organizations to one that requires States in many circumstances to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars," Sotomayor said.