The 6-3 ruling is the latest move by the conservative court to expand religious liberty rights and bring more religion into public life, a trend bolstered by the addition of three of former President Donald Trump’s nominees.
“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 for the majority. “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.”
Roberts was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. The three liberal justices dissented.
It is a loss for critics who say the decision will amount to a further erosion of the separation between church and state. Although only one other state, Vermont, has a similar program, the court’s ruling could inspire other states to pass similar programs.
Addressing the emphasis on “government neutrality” in a dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer, Roberts wrote that “there is nothing neutral about Maine’s program.”
“The state” he said, “pays for tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as they are not religious.”
“That is discrimination against religion,” Roberts said.
“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.”
Breyer, joined by Justice Elena Kagan and in part by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, argued that the majority’s ruling would invite more societal strife over religion.
This story is breaking and will be updated.