Freedom of education brilliantly upheld by the US Supreme Court in Carson v Makin

In June 21, 2022 the US Supreme Court took a step further towards achieving freedom of education. Robert C J, giving judgment for the majority built upon two earlier decisions of the US Supreme Court in favor of educational choice: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer and Espinoza v Montana Department of Revenue.

The case arose in the state of Maine, where a program designed to assist parents in paying tuition fees was enacted. In 1981, Maine added a new requirement for schools to be part of this program: sectarian schools were then excluded from the program. In practice, this meant that families wanting to send their children to faith-based schools, were prevented from using public tuition funding. This significantly hindered the parents’ ability to choose a school for their children, according to their values and beliefs.

Families subsequently brought a case against the commissioner of the Main Department of Education, alleging that the non-sectarian requirement violated the American Constitution. The District Court as well as the Court of Appeal held in favor of the commissioner, focusing mainly on the separation of church and state. But the Supreme Court overturned the decisions of the lower courts and invalidated the non-sectarian requirement, declaring that it violated the First Amendment of the American Constitution, particularly the Free Exercise clause. Attention was shifted to the parents’ freedom to send their children to a private faith-based school.

In effect, the ruling in Carson enables all parents, regardless of their income, to choose their children’ education. Educational choice is no longer a right enjoyed exclusively by privileged families who can afford tuition fees. The tuition assistance program is now available to parents with low incomes, wanting to send their children to private religious schools. Incidentally, this decision guards against religious discrimination.

The importance of Carson was captured by Leslie Hiner, Vice President of Legal Affairs at EdChoice (national non-profit organization encouraging state-based education choice programs), affirming this ruling “will finally put an end to a long, tortured history of anti-immigrant, anti- religious action that has hindered private school choice.” Given the reach of the US Supreme Court, this decision may resonate worldwide, towards a wider recognition of freedom of education as an essential human right.

Chloé Vermenouze

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