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Carson v. Makin and What It Means to Be a Religious School

The Supreme Court is currently considering whether to take up Carson v. Makin, a case that challenges a Maine statute allowing families who live in districts without a district high school to use public money to attend a private or religious school. In short, the statute allows families to use state money to attend religious schools that don’t promote “the faith or belief system with which it is associated” or teach material “through the lens of this faith.” Or as George Will noted in the Washington Post, Maine “parents can pick only religious schools that are not very serious about religion.”

For anyone who works in a faith-based school, this distinction is laughable. In an amicus brief filed on our behalf with the U.S. Supreme Court, we argue, along with the Council of Islamic Schools in North America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, that for faith-based schools like ours, “integration of faith into all aspects of schooling is an indispensable element of what it means to be a religious school.” And Maine is on weak constitutional ground when they try to separate out teaching the faith from being a faith-driven school. The government of Maine has also put itself in the position of judging how religious schools are.

Specifically, we believe that Maine’s law not only violates the First Amendment, but that it does so based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of religion and faith-based schools.

Here are the understandings that undergird our thinking in this case:

  • To be a faith-based school is to use beliefs to guide daily routines and all subjects of study. 

Not to teach subjects and behavior “through the lens of this faith”—as Maine suggests religious schools can do—is not to be a religious school. As Partnership Assistant Superintendent Christian Dallavis has explained, the root beliefs of Catholic schools must animate all we do—from our operational norms to our classroom routines to our programs and the art on the walls—in order for us to have integrity, or wholeness.

For us and for our fellow Jewish and Islamic schools, to be a religious person or institution is to have a set of beliefs that we live out throughout our days. Transcendent truths are not containable within worship services; they inform the daily stuff of life—what we wear and eat and how we treat others among them. As we are fond of quoting Sr. Helen Prejean: “watch what I do to see what I believe.” What’s more, we think that manifestation of belief in action is true for everyone, whether their beliefs are part of a system the state of Maine recognizes as a religion or not.

  • There’s no such thing as a values-neutral school.

We find the distinction between sectarian and nonsectarian schools artificial and even harmful to our national life. All schools promote beliefs, even public ones; all schools are, as we’ve quoted Robert Pondiscio as saying, “culture-imposing machines.” To believe that all belief systems are equal is itself a belief that many public schools advance; all schools assemble students and expect behaviors of them based on a set of values and beliefs—even if those beliefs are part of an implicit American civic religion rather than an explicitly church-based one.

Asserting that some schools are faith-based while others are not is a little like a child playing peekabo by covering her own face; the belief systems of public schools are still present, even when those who promote them willfully pretend they are not there.

  • Maine’s law violates the First Amendment in two ways.

The first amendment guarantees free exercise of religion to all, and precedent warns against excessive government intervention. Because Maine publicly funds some families to attend schools that align with their beliefs, but not all—and puts itself in the position of judging how much faith is too much in a school—the Maine statute fails on both fronts, denying free exercise and doing so in a way that compels excessive government intervention.

For decades in the 20th century, public institutions in the U.S. have attempted to safeguard the common good and the freedoms of all by building walls between public life and faith. That has resulted in our current system, where wealthy families have access to a full range of school choices that other families do not—and where orthodox secularism creates untenable laws like Maine’s. Perhaps as people are seeking in other areas of American life, it’s time to try building bridges rather than walls—even in publicly funded education. As it stands, Maine’s law is a wall with troubling gaps.