The Freedom From Religion Foundation is siding in a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief with the state of Maine in its refusal to use taxpayer money to fund religious education.
A year ago, the case of Carson v. Makin was decided in favor of Maine by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling has been appealed and now heads to the Supreme Court. FFRF is making its voice heard in a realm that is central to our nation’s secular constitutional set-up: public education.
The attempts of Maine Christians “to secure government funding to subsidize religious education are a direct assault on the right to religious liberty they claim to support,” the brief states in its summary. “The constitutional prohibition on states taxing citizens for the benefit of religion, directly or indirectly, guarantees religious liberty for all.”
FFRF’s brief makes two compelling arguments.
First, the Founders adopted the First Amendment to ensure that taxpayers are not compelled to subsidize a religion that is not their own.
“The compulsory support of a religion that is not one’s own is anathema to American principles,” the brief states. “Religious liberty cannot exist when the government can force citizens to donate to a sect that promises them, for example, eternal damnation and torture for exercising that freedom of religion.”
And, second, the “no aid” principle avoids government entanglement with religious education and the government oversight that must necessarily be coupled with state funding.
“When public money flows to private schools, however indirect the route, regulation is necessary and sensible because the unregulated flow of funds to unaccountable organizations guarantees abuse,” says the brief. “Not surprisingly, the country’s longest-lived private voucher program is bloated with such abuse. In Milwaukee over a 10-year period, more than $139 million in taxpayer funds went to voucher schools that were kicked out of the program for failing to meet basic requirements.”
In its decision on Oct. 29, 2020, the 1st Circuit concluded that the “nonsectarian” requirement in the state’s tuition assistance program did not exclude religious schools based on their religious status, but rather protected the state’s interest in only supporting education that was itself nonreligious. Thus, schools are excluded from Maine’s program not based upon what they are or what they believe, but solely based on what they propose to do with the state’s money.
If the Supreme Court reverses the circuit court’s ruling, FFRF writes, “Minority religious and nonreligious citizens would be immediately coerced into subsidizing religious education with which they fundamentally disagree.”
“This court should not undo the Maine Legislature’s decision not to subsidize sectarian education,” concludes FFRF’s brief before the Supreme Court. “Neither the parents seeking public money, nor the religious schools, have a right to taxpayer funds, directly or indirectly. The state’s decision is the only path consistent with fundamental principles of religious liberty.”
FFRF Constitutional Attorney Sam Grover wrote the amicus brief, with FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott the counsel of record. The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to promoting and defending science, reason, humanist values, and freedom of inquiry, has joined in the brief.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation — a national educational nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis. — is the largest association of freethinkers in the United States, representing more than 35,000 atheists, agnostics and other nonreligious Americans. It has 21 local and regional chapters across the country, including a Maine chapter. FFRF’s two primary purposes are to educate the public about nontheism and to defend the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.