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The Supreme Court is considering yet another case involving public funding of religious schools, Carson v. Makin. The case raises important questions about the fate of faith-based schools and institutions in an aggressively secular society.

Readers of First Things are undoubtedly aware of the 19th-century “Blaine amendments” intended to prevent public funds from going to Catholic schools. These provisions, and more recent invocations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, long required parents who wanted a religious education for their children to pay for it themselves.

Supreme Court decisions over the past twenty years, such as Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), have whittled away at this requirement. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020), the Court ruled that “A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

Carson v. Makin, which concerns faith-based schools in Maine, addresses a new dimension of this issue. What if government funding for faith-based schools comes at the expense of the school's integrity, of its distinctive mission? The Supreme Court's recent dismantling of barriers to public funding for religious schools, ironically enough, increases the danger of such capitulation. Carson v. Makin presents this danger in an especially clear light, since the Maine authorities profess that schools with a religious identity can receive public funds, provided those funds are not used “to promote and inculcate religious beliefs.”

First, a little background: Maine has many towns too small to support an adequate secondary school. Since 1873, the state has allowed families in these communities to send their children to public schools elsewhere or to private schools, with the local school district paying their tuition. In the 2017-2018 schoolyear, 4,546 students attended private secondary schools under this provision. For many decades, this program included schools with a religious identity. In 1980, however, the state attorney general advised that allowing a student to attend a “sectarian” school with public money would violate the Constitution. The state legislature subsequently excluded religious schools from the program.

The Carson family decided to send their daughter to Bangor Christian School because of their sincerely held religious beliefs. But because part of the school’s mission is “instilling a Biblical worldview in its students,” the Carsons were not eligible for tuition assistance from public funds. Joining the Carsons in the suit is the Nelson family. The Nelsons also wanted to send their children to a school with a religious character, but could not afford to do so because they were denied tuition support.

There is no question about the adequacy of the instruction provided by the schools that the Carson and Nelson families preferred. The schools satisfy every state curricular requirement. What the state objects to, according to its brief, are Bangor Christian's educational objectives, which include goals like leading “each unsaved student to trust Christ as his/her  personal savior and then to follow Christ as Lord of his/her life” and developing “within each student a Christian world view and Christian philosophy of life.” Because of these intentions, the state excluded Bangor Christian from the public funding program.

The Institute for Justice, which represents the two families, challenged this policy on the basis of the Espinoza decision. But the First Circuit upheld the state law, arguing that schools like Bangor Christian were excluded from the public funding program not because of their identity (which Espinoza would forbid), but because of the religious use to which the school would put the public funds.

By contrast, another private school, with a less distinctive mission, was judged eligible for the program. Although this institution had a “chaplain,” government officials approved it because school leadership claimed that what it taught were “universal . . . spiritual values” both “in and out of the classroom.” At the school's “weekly Chapel meetings,” students “participate in activities that help them learn and practice the moral and spiritual values they are being taught in school.” The state judged this vague religious mission to be acceptable. According to the petitioners’ brief in Carson: “When there is a question about whether a school is ‘nonsectarian’ and, thus, a permissible choice for families receiving tuition assistance, the Maine Department of Education . . . examines the school’s curriculum and activities to assess whether the school promotes faith or presents its teaching through a faith-based lens. Association or affiliation with a faith, church, or religious institution does not, in itself, render a school ineligible.”

Many of us believe that this state policy is unjust, violating the religious freedom of the Carsons, the Nelsons, and other families whose religious convictions lead them to seek schools that will nurture their children in a religious tradition. Their right to be treated equally with parents who do not share those convictions will hopefully be upheld by the Supreme Court.

Carson also sheds light on a related, less obvious issue. There is a real risk that faith-based schools will soften their religious identity in order to become more acceptable to the government. As we call for public support of religious schools, we need to beware of the danger that such progress may pose to religious freedom. The freedom of parents to choose religious schools will become meaningless if schools do not possess the autonomy to provide coherent and distinctive education. 

Six years ago, I (an evangelical Anglican) gave a talk at the World Congress on Catholic Education about why it is essential to protect the religious distinctiveness of Catholic schools. I warned that there were signs, both in Europe and in North America, that those directing and teaching in such schools were often neglecting this distinctiveness.

Why is this important? First, because parents have a right to expect that the schools they choose for their children will live up to their promises. Otherwise, the schools are engaging in false advertising behind a religious label.

Second, because there is mounting evidence that schools with a clearly-defined mission that goes beyond academic instruction make an essential contribution to the health of society and the flourishing of students. Such schools form students of good character, enabling them to resist the seductions of a disintegrating culture.

Progressive elites tell us that religious schools may divide society, and that public schools are better at producing good citizens by bringing together children from different religious backgrounds. But a growing body of well-conducted research shows that this  is just not so. David Campbell's studies found that “students in Catholic schools perform better than students in assigned public schools on all three objectives of civic education—capacity for civic engagement, political knowledge, and political tolerance.”

Unfortunately, this distinctiveness is threatened today as it never has been before, except under totalitarian regimes. There are external threats from government. But there are also internal threats, arising from a loss of nerve on the part of many educators who lack a clear understanding of and commitment to the proclaimed mission of their school.

Carson v. Makin is a valuable reminder that religious schools need to be protected from the imposition of a secular worldview and from the self-betrayal of pre-emptive capitulation. As the barriers to public funding of faith-based schools fall through litigation and legislation, those who guide and work in such schools should take nothing for granted, but strengthen the clarity and consistency of their mission.

Charles L. Glenn is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy at Boston University.

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