On June 21, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that states that use taxpayer money to provide tuition assistance to students attending non-religious private schools must also use taxpayer money to provide assistance students attending private religious schools.
The decision was met with support from Philadelphia day schools and Jewish education advocates, but it drew criticism from those concerned about the separation of church and state.
The case, Carson v. Makin, was born in Maine, a rural state where more than half of the school districts don’t have a public school option. As a result, the state relies on public schools outside of a student’s school district or private schools to provide needed educational opportunities.
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The ruling extends tuition assistance to religious schools that are “Bible-based.” Majority opinion writer Chief Justice John Roberts said the denial of financial aid to students wishing to attend private religious schools is “discrimination against religion”.
“This removes any questions or potential challenges anyone may have raised against existing programs that support Jewish schools and other religious schools alongside other types of non-public schools,” said Nathan Diament, executive director. of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which oversees the Teach. The Coalition and Teach PA projects champion Jewish day schools.
The decision is a reinforcement of the belief that government neutrality over religion and religious institutions is a threat to religious freedom, Diament said. He believes it bolsters previous government programs, such as the nonprofit Security Grant Program, which the government also provides to religious institutions.
But the nonprofit security grants and other assistance programs, despite their importance in Jewish communities, have not received unanimous support, said Burt Siegel, vice president of Democratic Jewish Outreach. Some Jews ideologically oppose private religious school ancillary services, such as transportation services, claiming it is a violation of the First Amendment.
“Increasingly, we are seeing a blurring of lines” between church and state, Siegel said.
The Anti-Defamation League joined in an amicus brief on Carson v. Makin in November stating that “the history of the free exercise clause reflects that it does not obligate states to fund religious education. This would constitute an unwarranted and substantial extension of the free exercise clause, contrary to the Court’s existing precedent. »
While Siegel thinks the ruling is a slippery slope and the current Supreme Court is driven by ideology, Diament doesn’t see the decision as a threat to the First Amendment.
“What the Establishment Clause, in particular, of the First Amendment was intended to ensure was that there was no preference of the government or of one religion over all others,” Diament said. .
In Carson v. Makin says religious schools have an equal opportunity to take advantage of tuition assistance programs, which provides more opportunities for religious freedom, Diament argues.
For Jewish day schools in the region, the decision is less of an ideological victory than a practical one.
“Any generosity of spirit and money is not only needed, but greatly appreciated,” said Besie Katz, director of Hebrew Academy Politz.
Katz hopes the decision will not only ease the burden on day schools and parents seeking to give their children a Jewish education, but also open the door to more opportunities for financial aid to religious private schools.
In the past, Politz wanted government help to fund a sign language interpreter. The government would only pay the interpreter for their work in general studies classes, but not in religion classes.
But the Jewish Federation now provides assistance to Jewish schools, Siegel argued, which may set a precedent for ways the Jewish community can increase financial support for religious schools.
“Lack of money should not prevent a Jewish family from providing daytime education,” he said.
However, he argued that the power to provide tuition assistance should come from the Jewish community, not the government.
“It’s a responsibility of our community, really, to make day school Jewish education affordable and available,” Siegel said.