Supreme Court Ruling Further Erodes Church-State Separation
Carson v. Makin is yet another loss in the fight to uphold church-state separation and preserve public education.
This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Carson v. Makin, stating that by excluding religious schools from receiving public education funding, Maine was violating the Constitution.
There are approximately 5,000 students in rural Maine that live in areas that don’t have populations dense enough to establish and maintain secondary schools. Because those children have a right to an education, Maine allows their families to choose to send their children to a public school of their choice outside the community, or to use taxpayer money to pay for tuition at a private school, so long as the private school wasn’t a sectarian school.
Carson v. Makin came about as the result of two families suing because they felt their right to freely exercise their religion was being violated by the state because they weren’t allowed to use these public funds to send their children to Christian schools. And apparently 6 of 9 Supreme Court justices agreed with them.
I used to as well. When I was an adolescent attending a Christian school, I felt that it was unfair that my parents paid taxes to fund public schools when my brother and I weren’t benefitting from that. Except that we were. For one, my mother recently retired from a 35-year career as a public educator. But also, public education benefits us not only individually, but on a societal level, and to a massive degree.
Conservatives tend to view the world through an individualistic lens, ignoring the broader implications of policies that might benefit them individually. For example, they focus on the Second Amendment’s provision that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms…shall not be infringed,” ignoring its explicitly-stated context, that “ a well regulated Militia” was “necessary to the security of a free State.”
Similarly, when they look at First Amendment issues, they look only at the individual liberty afforded, and not at the broader implications. The portion of the First Amendment that covers freedom of religion has two clauses: 1) the Establishment Clause that prevents Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” and 2) the Free Exercise Clause that prevents Congress from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.
Just as conservatives interpret the Second Amendment as meaning that they should be free to own and carry whatever weapons they choose, they focus on the Free Exercise Clause to the exclusion of the Establishment Clause. They should have the liberty to use public funds to send their children to private Christian schools, and everyone else should be ok with their tax money being used by the government to subsidize this. They ignore, for instance, my right not to pay to indoctrinate their children into a religious subculture that I believe is harmful.
Carson v. Makin is yet another front in the assault on public education that also includes school voucher programs and charter schools. The goal is to redirect funding from public education, which is already appallingly underfunded, to private or charter schools. Then, because the underfunded public schools can’t perform to the level of privatized education models, conservatives can argue that they are ineffective and should be abolished in favor of the privatized models that aren’t subject to government regulation.
My private Christian school taught me that the universe was created in six 24-hour days, about 6,000 years ago, and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed until a global flood made the climate inhospitable to the few that made it onto Noah’s ark. This was necessary to maintain the literal interpretation of the Bible that allowed them to weaponize it against everyone that wasn’t a straight, cis-gender, white, conservative Christian man. But it required teaching children to deny science.
It wasn’t just science; religion was woven into every subject they taught. In “Heritage Studies” class, I learned that chattel slavery wasn’t all that bad, really, because most of the slaveholders were good to the people they enslaved, and at least the enslaved people got to learn about Jesus. In geometry class, I learned that circles are a representation of God’s infinite nature, and that triangles remind us of his triune nature.
But it wasn’t just the curriculum that was harmful. My school, like the two schools involved in Carson v. Makin, actively discriminated against LGBTQIA+ people. It had a deeply racist history, including a ban on interracial dating that wasn’t lifted until 2000. It indoctrinated students into a conservative worldview that upholds white supremacy. It shaped my views on race, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, immigration, and disabilities. And it took decades for me to undo the damage.
As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, today’s Supreme Court decision “leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.” The Court ruled not that Maine may use public funds to pay for students to be educated at schools that prioritize indoctrination over education, but that it must. This is another significant victory for those seeking to destroy public education as the Supreme Court, in the words of Justice Sotomayor, “continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.”