Carson v. Makin

Justia Summary

Maine offers tuition assistance for parents who live in school districts that neither operate a secondary school nor contract with a school in another district. Parents designate the secondary school they would like their child to attend; the school district sends payments to that school to defray tuition costs. To be eligible for tuition payments, private schools had to be accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges or approved by the Maine Department of Education. Since 1981, Maine has limited tuition assistance payments to “nonsectarian” schools. The First Circuit affirmed the rejection of constitutional challenges to the “nonsectarian” requirement.

The Supreme Court reversed. Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement for otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause, which protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” A state need not subsidize private education but if it does so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious. A law that operates in that manner must be subjected to “the strictest scrutiny.” A neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause; a state’s anti-establishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.