The Supreme Court’s right-wing supermajority just shredded the separation of church and state

The Supreme Court’s right-wing supermajority just shredded the separation of church and state
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2021 (Wikimedia Commons).

The U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment is crystal clear when it comes to freedom of religion, declaring what while Americans are free to practice whatever religion they choose, the government cannot favor one religion, sect or denomination over another. This means that while Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Bahais are all free to practice their religions as they see fit, none of them are entitled to preferential treatment.

But the U.S. Supreme Court’s right-wing 6-3 supermajority, according to Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, is failing to honor that separation of church and state.

These are the 1st Amendment’s exact words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

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Journalist Steve Benen, in an op-ed for MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s MaddowBlog published on June 21, takes a look at the High Court’s 6-3 ruling in Carson v. Makin — which deals with education subsidies in Maine. According to NBC News, the decision, handed down on June 21, has “relaxed longstanding restrictions on using taxpayer money to pay for religious education, further lowering the wall of separation between church and state.”

The three dissenters were appointed by Democratic presidents: Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan and Breyer, who is retiring and will be replaced by President Joe Biden’s nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“There are areas in rural Maine in which there are no public schools,” Benen explains. “Families in those areas are given taxpayer subsidies from the state — money that would ordinarily go to schools themselves — which they can use at public or private schools of their choice. But under Maine’s program, the money can’t go toward religious education. The underlying principle is obvious: In the United States, we have a First Amendment that separates church and state.”

Benen adds, “People can give money to religious institutions for faith-based education if they want to, but the government shouldn’t force taxpayers to subsidize religious lessons. Some families in Maine didn’t quite see it that way and challenged the state’s policy in court, claiming discrimination. Today, the Republican-appointed justices agreed, ruling that Maine taxpayers will be required to fund religious education.”

During oral arguments for Carson v. Makin in December 2021, Benen warned, “We don't want to get into a situation where a state will pay for the teaching of religion.”

Sotomayor was even more forceful than Breyer in her dissent, saying, “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.”

Benen notes that Bangor Christian School and Temple Academy are the two private schools in Maine that will be in a position to receive taxpayer subsidies. Drawing on an article by Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern from December 2021, Benen points out some of their practices. For example, Bangor Christian School has a policy of expelling any student who identifies as gay or transgender and requires students to “refute the teachings of the Islamic religion.” And Temple Academy only hires born-again Christians, even for custodian positions.

“The point is not that these schools should be prohibited from espousing such beliefs or adopting such employment practices, offensive as they are,” Benen explains. “The schools are part of private religious institutions, and these policies are protected under the First Amendment. The point, rather, is that taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize such religious institutions. Thanks to the High Court’s new ruling, taxpayers will have to do exactly that.”

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