The Supreme Court tears a new hole in the wall separating church and state

“The specific program at issue in Carson is unusual to Maine. About 5,000 students in Maine’s most rural areas, where it is not cost-efficient for the state to operate a public school, receive tuition vouchers that can be used to pay for private education. Maine law provides that these vouchers may only be used at “nonsectarian” schools, not religious ones.

Carson struck down this law excluding religious schools from the Maine voucher program, and that decision could have broad implications far beyond the few thousand students in Maine who benefit from these tuition subsidies.

Not that long ago, the Court required the government to remain neutral on questions of religion — a requirement that flowed from the First Amendment’s command that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In practice, that meant that the government could neither impose burdens on religious institutions that it didn’t impose on others, nor could it actively subsidize religion.

Carson turns this neutrality rule on its head, holding that government benefit programs that exclude religious institutions engage in “discrimination against religion” that violates the Constitution.

At the same time, however, Carson also contains significant language confining the scope of this new rule. If the government cannot create benefit programs that exclude religion, then under the most extreme version of this argument, it is unclear why traditional public schools — which provide secular but not religious education — are constitutional. Secular public schools, after all, are government institutions that maintain neutrality toward religion. And, under the new rule announced in Carson, neutrality is unconstitutional discrimination.

But Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion in Carson states explicitly that “Maine may provide a strictly secular education in its public schools.” And it reaffirms the Court’s holding in a 2020 decision that “a State need not subsidize private education.” That means that most students who receive a state-subsidized education will not be indoctrinated into a faith.

Nevertheless, one upshot of the Carson decision is that Maine’s taxpayers will be forced to pay for education that many of them will view as offensive. As the state explained in its brief, the plaintiff families in this case want the state to pay at least part of the tuition at private schools that discriminate against LGBTQ teachers and students. One of these schools allegedly requires teachers to agree that “the Bible says that ‘God recognize[s] homosexuals and other deviants as perverted’” and that “[s]uch deviation from Scriptural standards is grounds for termination.’”

After Tuesday’s decision, these families are all but certain to get their wish — Maine would have to significantly rework its education policies to avoid such an outcome — and Maine’s taxpayers will soon have to fund education at schools with outlandish or even bigoted worldviews.”

The Supreme Court hands the religious right a big victory by lying about the facts of a case

“The Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District on Monday, overruling a 1971 case laying out how the government must keep its distance from religion.

But Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for himself and his fellow Republican appointees relies on a bizarre misrepresentation of the case’s facts. He repeatedly claims that Joseph Kennedy, a former public school football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state who ostentatiously prayed at the 50-yard line following football games — often joined by his players, members of the opposing team, and members of the general public — “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.”

(Justice Brett Kavanaugh did not join a brief section of Gorsuch’s opinion concerning the Constitution’s free speech protections, but Gorsuch otherwise spoke for the Court’s entire Republican majority.)

Because Gorsuch misrepresents the facts of this case, it’s hard to assess many of its implications.

The Court’s decision to explicitly overrule Lemon v. Kurtzman, the 1971 decision that previously governed cases involving the Constitution’s language prohibiting “an establishment of religion,” has obvious implications for future lawsuits: Lower court judges will no longer apply Lemon’s framework to establishment clause cases.

But it’s not clear how those lower court judges should now navigate questions about the separation of church and state. Although the Court overrules Lemon, it does not announce a fleshed-out test that will replace Lemon. Instead, Kennedy announces a vague new rule that “the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by ‘reference to historical practices and understandings.’”

Moreover, because Gorsuch’s opinion relies so heavily on false facts, the Court does not actually decide what the Constitution has to say about a coach who ostentatiously prays in the presence of students and the public. Instead, it decides a fabricated case about a coach who merely engaged in “private” and “quiet” prayer.

If the facts of Kennedy actually resembled the made-up facts laid out in Gorsuch’s opinion, then Kennedy would have reached the correct result. Even under Lemon, a public school employee is typically permitted to quietly pray while they are not actively engaged with students.

Gorsuch’s opinion, however, describes a very different case than the one that was actually before the Court.”

“In the real case that was actually before the Supreme Court, Coach Kennedy incorporated “motivational” prayers into his coaching. Eventually, these prayers matured into public, after-game sessions, where both Kennedy’s players and players on the other team would kneel around Kennedy as he held up helmets from both teams and led students in prayer.

After games, Kennedy would also walk out to the 50-yard line, where he would kneel and pray in front of students and spectators. Initially, he did so alone, but after a few games students started to join him — eventually, a majority of his players did so. One parent complained to the school district that his son “felt compelled to participate,” despite being an atheist, because the student feared “he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t participate.”

When the Bremerton school district learned of Kennedy’s behavior, it told him to knock it off — though it did offer to accommodate Kennedy if he wanted to pray when he wasn’t surrounded by students and spectators. And Kennedy did end some of his most extravagant behavior, such as the prayer sessions where he held up the helmets while surrounded by kneeling students.

But Kennedy also went on a media tour, presenting himself as a coach who “made a commitment with God” to outlets ranging from local newspapers to Good Morning America. And Kennedy’s lawyer informed the school district that the coach would resume praying at the 50-yard line immediately after games.

At the next game following this tour, coaches, players, and members of the public mobbed the field when Kennedy knelt to pray. A federal appeals court described this mob as a “stampede,” and the school principal said that he “saw people fall” and that, due to the crush of people, the district was unable “to keep kids safe.” Members of the school’s marching band were knocked over by the crowds.

And, contrary to Gorsuch’s repeated claims that Kennedy only wanted to offer a “short, private, personal prayer,” Kennedy was surrounded by players, reporters, and members of the public when he conducted his prayer session after that game. We know this because Justice Sonia Sotomayor includes a picture of the scene in her dissenting opinion.

Gorsuch dismisses this photographic evidence by claiming that “not a single Bremerton student joined Mr. Kennedy’s quiet prayers” after this game — he claims that the players depicted in this photograph are “from the opposing team.”

Whether those players are from the Bremerton school district or not, that doesn’t change the fact that Kennedy engaged in very public prayer sessions, and did so while acting as an official representative of a public school. Nor does it change the fact that, after he was ordered to cease this activity, Kennedy went on a media tour that seemed designed to turn his supposedly “quiet prayers” into a public political spectacle, a spectacle that both players and spectators eagerly participated in.”

“if the facts of this case resembled the false facts laid out in Gorsuch’s opinion, then Gorsuch would have a point. Public school employees may engage in private acts of devotion, such as saying a prayer over their lunch in a school cafeteria while they are on the job.

But there’s nothing private about a school employee conducting a media tour touting his plans to pray at the 50-yard line of a football field immediately after a game. There is nothing private about the coach carrying out that plan — especially when he does so surrounded by kneeling players, cameras, and members of the public.”

“Kennedy will no doubt inspire other teachers and coaches to behave similarly to Coach Kennedy, but those teachers and coaches will do so at their own peril. Gorsuch’s opinion doesn’t weigh whether a coach is allowed to do what Kennedy actually did. That remains an open question, because the Court did not actually decide that case.”

Not all religions oppose abortion

“Abortion is permitted in Judaism, and when the life of the pregnant person is at stake, it is required. Judaism’s approach to abortion finds its basis in the book of Exodus. There’s a case where two people are fighting, and one person knocks over a pregnant person and causes a miscarriage. It says very clearly, if it’s only a miscarriage, then the person who caused the harm is obligated to pay monetary fines as damages, and if a pregnant person dies, then it is treated as manslaughter. So we see right away that in the book of Exodus it’s very clear that the fetus and pregnant person have different statuses, and causing a miscarriage is not treated as manslaughter. The fetus does not have the same status as a born human. It’s treated as potential life, rather than actual life.”

Court strikes down Maine law barring state funds for religious education

“Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in the case, which split the court cleanly along ideological lines. Roberts said the state’s interest in avoiding concerns about establishment of religion did not justify the policy that effectively blocked parents directing funding to religious schools.

“A neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause,” Roberts wrote. “A State’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”

Under the Maine “tuitioning” program the court struck down on Tuesday, local governments lacking the population to run schools at a certain grade level typically pay for students to be educated at public or private schools of their choice. But, to avoid government funds being used for religious purposes, since 1981 the program has refused to pay for schools providing religious education.

In a 2020 decision on an educational aid program out of Montana, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states could not exclude families or schools from student aid programs simply because the schools were backed by religious institutions.

However, that decision left open the question of whether states could block the use of their funds for explicitly religious or “sectarian” classes.

But in the case decided Tuesday, Roberts explicitly rejected Maine’ arguments that it was only targeting religious teaching and not whether a school was run by a religious group.

“Any attempt to give effect to such a distinction by scrutinizing whether and how a religious school pursues its educational mission would also raise serious concerns about state entanglement with religion and denominational favoritism,” the chief justice wrote.

In what is one of his final dissenting opinions before his planned retirement, Justice Stephen Breyer said the court seems to have lost all interest in enforcing the Constitution’s prohibition on establishment of religion.

“The First Amendment begins by forbidding the government from ‘mak[ing] [any] law respecting an establishment of religion.’ It next forbids them to make any law ‘prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ The Court today pays almost no attention to the words in the first Clause while giving almost exclusive attention to the words in the second,” Breyer wrote.

Breyer also said the court was opening a Pandora’s box with its decision, suggesting that it was simply a way station to requiring all communities to use taxpayer funds to pay for religious schooling.

“We have never previously held what the Court holds today, namely, that a State must (not may) use state funds to pay for religious education as part of a tuition program designed to ensure the provision of free statewide public school education,” Breyer wrote.

“What happens once ‘may’ becomes ‘must’? Does that transformation mean that a school district that pays for public schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools?” Breyer asked. “Does it mean that school districts that give vouchers for use at charter schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to give their children a religious education?”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor also dissented, lamenting what she sees as a series of decisions bringing the government closer to direct sponsorship of religious activity.

“This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Sotomayor warned. “It is irrational for this Court to hold that the Free Exercise Clause bars Maine from giving money to parents to fund the only type of education the State may provide consistent with the Establishment Clause: a religiously neutral one. Nothing in the Constitution requires today’s result.”

“Forcing American taxpayers to fund private religious education — even when those private schools fail to meet education standards, intentionally discriminate against students, or use public funds to promote religious training, worship, and instruction — erodes the foundation of our democracy and harms students,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

A national campaign sponsored by the Education Law Center and Southern Poverty Law Center meanwhile promised to pressure Maine’s legislature into repealing the state tuition program.

Still, the decision’s short-term reach appears to be limited — even if it creates new legal quandaries over the long term.

“Has anything enormous changed? No,” Derek Black, an education and civil rights professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said of Tuesday’s decision. “But what we are seeing is that all gray and ambiguous or open questions are being resolved to the benefit of religion.”

In the immediate aftermath, Black said the ruling poses serious challenges for states such as Maine and Vermont that have instituted private school voucher programs that prohibit funds from going to religious schools.”

Christianity Is the World’s Most Persecuted Religion, Confirms New Report

“The group Open Doors USA figures that 360 million Christians last year lived in countries where persecution was “significant.” Roughly 5,600 Christians were murdered, more than 6,000 were detained or imprisoned, and another 4,000-plus were kidnapped. In addition, more than 5,000 churches and other religious facilities were destroyed.

American Christians talk of persecution, but that is what real persecution looks like.

Every year Open Doors USA releases its World Watch report of the 50 states most likely to punish Christians for their faith. Last year 11 nations were guilty of “extreme persecution.”

Afghanistan took over the top spot from North Korea this year. Open Doors explains that it long was “impossible to live openly as a Christian in Afghanistan. Leaving Islam is considered shameful, and Christian converts face dire consequences if their new faith is discovered. Either they have to flee the country or they will be killed.””

The Supreme Court hands the Christian right a victory it actually deserved to win

“The Supreme Court, in an increasingly familiar development, handed a victory to a Christian conservative organization on Monday. The Court’s decision in Shurtleff v. Boston establishes that this organization, Camp Constitution, should have been allowed to fly a Christian-identified flag from a flagpole outside Boston’s city hall.

But Shurtleff is unlike several other high-profile victories for religious conservatives that the Court has handed down in recent years because the justices did not need to remake existing law in order to reach this result. The decision was unanimous (although the justices split somewhat regarding why the plaintiffs in this case should prevail), with liberal Justice Stephen Breyer writing the majority opinion.

The case involves three flagpoles standing outside of Boston’s city hall. The first flagpole displays the US flag, with a smaller flag honoring prisoners of war and missing service members below it. The second pole features the Massachusetts state flag. And the third typically — but not always — displays the city’s own flag.

This third flagpole, and the city’s practice of sometimes allowing outside groups to display a flag of their choice from it, is the centerpiece of Shurtleff. Since at least 2005, the city has permitted outside groups to hold flag-raising ceremonies on the plaza during which they can raise a flag of their choosing on the third flagpole.

At various times, the third flagpole has displayed the flags of many nations, including Brazil, China, Ethiopia, Italy, Mexico, and Turkey. It has displayed the rainbow LGBTQ pride flag, a flag commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill, and a flag honoring Malcolm X.

But when Harold Shurtleff, head of an organization called Camp Constitution, asked to fly a flag associated with the Christian faith, the city refused — claiming that displaying such a flag could be interpreted as “an endorsement by the city of a particular religion,” in violation of “separation of church and state or the [C]onstitution.”

Justice Breyer’s majority opinion concludes that the city erred. Relying on a bevy of cases establishing that the government typically cannot discriminate against a particular viewpoint, Breyer notes that “Boston concedes that it denied Shurtleff’s request solely because the Christian flag he asked to raise ‘promot[ed] a specific religion.’” Under the facts of this case, that’s a form of viewpoint discrimination and it’s not allowed.

While it’s notable that Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh each wrote separate opinions indicating that they are eager to let government get cozy with religion, and they have two opportunities to do so this term, this case is a straightforward decision that follows current law — in short, nothing remarkable.”

“The general rule in free speech cases is that the government may not discriminate against any particular viewpoint. Boston could not, for example, have a rule that Democrats are allowed to gather in the city hall plaza but not Republicans. Or that people who support restrictive immigration policies may do so, but not people who oppose them.

But there’s an exception to this general rule when the government speaks in its own voice. That is, the government is allowed to express its own opinion on a subject without also providing a forum for dissenting voices. If a public school principal tells her students to “say no to drugs,” she’s not required to give equal time to the grungy guy in the junior class who sells weed out of his 1997 Subaru Legacy.

The primary question in Shurtleff is whether, when Boston’s city government permitted a wide range of private groups — but not Camp Constitution — to display a flag of their choice outside of city hall, these flags represented the city’s speech or the private groups’ speech. Again, if the flags were a form of government speech, then Boston is allowed to exclude viewpoints it does not share.

But the Court concluded that the city did not use the third flagpole to express its own views, and that it effectively created “a forum for the expression of private speakers’ views.” As Breyer notes, Boston does not appear to have made any effort whatsoever to control which flags are displayed from this flagpole until it denied Shurtleff’s request to fly a Christian flag.”