OOn June 21, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that states that use taxpayers’ money to provide tuition to students attending non-religious private schools must also use taxpayers’ money to provide assistance to students attending private religious schools.
The decision has been supported by Philadelphia day schools and Jewish education advocates, but it has drawn criticism from those concerned about the separation of church and state.
The case, Carson v. Makin, originated in Maine, a rural state where more than half of the school districts do not have public schools. As a result, the state relies on public schools outside a student’s school district or private schools to provide necessary educational opportunities.
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The ruling extends tuition assistance to religious schools that are “Bible-based.” Chief Justice John Roberts, the majority opinion writer, said refusing tuition assistance to students who want to attend private religious schools is “discrimination against religion.”
“It removes any questions or potential challenges that anyone might have raised against existing programs that support Jewish schools and other religious schools in addition to other types of non-public schools,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which oversees holds on to the Teach Coalition and Teach PA projects advocating for Jewish day schools.
The ruling reinforces the belief that the government’s neutrality toward religion and religious institutions poses a threat to religious freedom, Diament said. He believes it supports past government programs such as the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which the government also provides to religious institutions.
But nonprofit security grants and other aid programs, despite their prominence in Jewish communities, have not been unanimously supported, said Burt Siegel, vice president of Democratic Jewish Outreach. Some Jews ideologically oppose support services to private religious schools, such as transportation services, claiming it is a violation of the First Amendment.
“More and more we see a blurring of the lines” between church and state, Siegel said.
The Anti-Defamation League participated in an amicus briefing on Carson v. Makin in November that stated that “the history of the Free Exercise Clause reflects that states are under no obligation to fund religious education. To do so would be an unwarranted and substantial extension of the Free Exercise Clause, contrary to the Court’s existing precedent.”
While Siegel believes the ruling is a slippery slope and that the current Supreme Court is dictated by ideology, Diament does not see the ruling as a threat to the First Amendment.
“What the First Amendment’s founding clause was primarily supposed to guarantee is that there is no government preference or one religion over all others,” Diament said.
In the case of Carson v. Makin, religious schools have an equal opportunity to use educational assistance programs, opening up more opportunities for religious freedom, Diament argues.
For Jewish day schools in the area, the ruling is less of an ideological victory than a practical one.
“Any generosity of spirit and money is not only needed but greatly appreciated,” said Besie Katz, the director of the Politz Hebrew Academy.
Katz hopes the ruling will not only ease the burden on day schools and parents seeking to give their children a Jewish education, but also open the door to more opportunities for financial aid to private religious schools.
In the past, Politz wanted government support to fund a sign language interpreter. The government would only pay the interpreter for their work in the general classes, but not in the religion classes.
But the Jewish Federation is now providing aid to Jewish schools, Siegel argued, which could set a precedent for ways the Jewish community can increase financial support for religious schools.
“The lack of finances should not prevent a Jewish family from providing daytime education,” he said.
However, he argued that the authority to grant tuition fees should come from within the Jewish community, not from the government.
“It is truly a responsibility of our community to make Jewish daytime education affordable and available,” Siegel said.