Let me begin by saying I am not a constitutional lawyer. I know, I know, it’s shocking. Me? NOT a lawyer? Who would have thought? I DID do mock trial in high school though and I feel like I was pretty good at it, and one of my fellow mock trial friends DID go on to become a successful corporate lawyer so…you know what, I’m getting off-track. I’m not a lawyer. I’m just an atheist who is happy to live and let live with religious people provided we all agree that, say, the separation of church and state is an important, central tenet of US democracy that we should protect at all costs as it benefits EVERYONE, religious or not.
Unfortunately, a significant number of very motivated Christian fundamentalists do NOT agree with me on that. I mean, other religious fundamentalists like Muslims also don’t agree but the real work here is being done by Christian theocrats, who have made it their mission for at least the past 50 years to chip away at the wall separating church from state. Most recently, I’ve talked about how Donald Trump promised in 2017 to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, and last year I talked about how religious schools are legally allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ people while public schools are not. Remember that, because it’s gonna be very relevant in a minute.
The latest salvo in the war on democracy is this week’s ludicrous, pro-theocrat Supreme Court decision, not to be confused with last week’s ludicrous pro-theocrat Supreme Court decision (and not to be confused with the ludicrous pro-gun decision that came out on the day I’m recording this): they’ve struck down Maine’s ban on using taxpayer money to fund religious schools. Yep! Taxpayer money can now fund religious indoctrination.
Here’s the deal: Maine has a lot of rural, sparsely populated areas surrounding its few urban centers. Rather than spending the money and energy to make sure children in those areas can easily access public schools, they allow students to get a scholarship to attend their choice of private school. The private school the student chooses can be secular, or it can be affiliated with a religious organization, or it can even be run by a religious organization, but the education provided must be secular. No religious indoctrination. Because, you know, if the government starts paying for children to be indoctrinated into a certain religion, that would violate the separation of church and state. The wall between them would disappear in a puff of logic.
Two families brought a case against the state, claiming that this rule unfairly discriminated against religious schools that indoctrinate children. That case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which as you all know has been nicely packed with Religious Right zealots, just as Donald Trump promised. And those ultra-Conservative theocrats decided that yes, Maine taxpayers SHOULD be forced to tithe to Churches.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that this decision was “unremarkable” as it reasonably builds upon previous Supreme Court decisions. Which decisions? I’m so glad you asked! Two decisions HE wrote. First there was the 2017 decision Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, in which a church sued because the government denied them a $20,000 grant to upgrade their playground, as it would mean directly funding religious exercise (which, considering it’s a playground, has several meanings here). The Supreme Court found in the church’s favor 5-4, essentially stating (in the words of Justice Sotomayor in a very angry dissent), “that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.” Sotomayor went on to say the “decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”
THAT case was then cited as precedent in Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue, a 2020 case that involved the Montana legislature attempting to fund religious schools by offering a tax credit to people who donated to send kids to private schools, including religious schools that indoctrinate kids. The Montana Supreme Court was like, “Oh, shit, yeah, we can’t do that because the constitution and 200 years of precedent says we can’t give taxpayer money to religious instruction.” A very sensible take! Unfortunately, the case was appealed to the new, batshit theocrat US Supreme Court where one John Roberts wrote that if a state funds private schools in any way, “it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
And that brings us to this week, when one John Roberts ruled that Maine cannot “discriminate” against schools just because they engage in religious instruction. Schools can have a little religious indoctrination, as a treat. Most states (37 and Puerto Rico as of this recording) have some kind of program on the books to fund private schools, which means non-Christian residents of those states (considering that the vast majority of religious schools in the US are Christian) will now be paying to fund schools that teach students to discriminate against many of them. I’m not being hyperbolic, here: Americans United for Separation of Church and State notes that the two schools involved in this particular case “discriminate against LGBTQ families, one barring their admission and the other forcing them to undergo ‘counseling’ and renounce their sexual orientation or gender identity, or be expelled. One school’s stated educational objective is to ‘refute the teachings of the Islamic religion with the truth of God’s word’ – and now Muslim taxpayers will be forced to fund that school.”
And yes, this means that Christian taxpayers would be forced to pay for Muslim schools, or Satanic Temple schools, if those existed in enough numbers to be considered a threat. But we’ve seen Republican lawmakers get shot and still fight gun control, because they know that they’re the guys with the guns. They’re also the guys with the schools.
It’s particularly galling that the Supreme Court says that YOU will be forced to fund a school that indoctrinates children against your personal beliefs or your actual being, while at the same time they have upheld the right of businesses like Hobby Lobby to refuse to fund their employees’ healthcare because it goes against the owners’ personal beliefs. Remember when Hobby Lobby bought fake Dead Sea Scrolls and illegally smuggled antiquities out of Iraq? Good times.
I’ve seen a lot of people, particularly atheists and secularists, say something along the lines of, “Well, if our taxes fund religious schools, then religious schools should pay taxes!” Well, have I got bad news for you: our taxes have been funding private secular schools for quite awhile, and those schools also do not pay taxes. Yep! To truly appreciate how nuts this is, note that not all private schools are there for kids in rural Maine to be able to get an education without spending hours on a bus: in fact, most of them are there to provide a BETTER education than poorly funded public schools for rich families that can afford astronomical tuitions – here in California, the AVERAGE private school tuition is $15,683 per year with an upper limit of $73,320. I paid less for four years of Boston University.
Those wealthy families get significant tax breaks for “donating” that tuition to a non-profit institution, pulling even more money away from public schools that desperately need it, and the private schools themselves get huge tax advantages including often not paying property tax. Which, again, takes money away from public institutions that poor people rely upon.
So, the downside to this ruling is that Church and State are no longer separated in the US. In fact, it looks like Church and State have moved in together and are sleeping in twin beds in the same room like on the Dick Van Dyke show, which seems intimate but chaste, but also you know that a few nights a week when no one’s looking they push those beds together.
The plus side, if there is one, is that at least maybe this will encourage more liberal states to rethink their funding of private schools. These rulings only apply to states that fund any private schools, so if a state doesn’t fund private schools, they can’t be forced to fund private religious indoctrination.
But it’s pretty sad when the only upside to be found is, “Wow, we fucked this system up so much that maybe now politicians will notice and try to fix it,” and the “system” in question is EDUCATING OUR NATION’S CHILDREN.
Man, I don’t know. Talk to your representatives, donate to Americans United, like, comment, subscribe, take a long walk in the woods and try not to think about how fucked everything is.