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Opinion: How religious can your religious school actually be?

A program in Maine gives public officials the power to decide which beliefs are OK to support through public funds and which ones are not. All Americans should find that worrisome

A member of Waldoboro United Methodist Church sings a hymn during a service, Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Waldoboro, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

How much religion is too much religion? Should there be a difference between widely accepted beliefs and more controversial ones? The U.S. Supreme Court is set to address those questions in a decision that could shape our pressing national conversations.

The court heard oral arguments last week in Carson v. Makin, a case involving Maine’s tuition program. The program funds private school tuition for students living in rural parts of the state who do not have access to a public school. All private schools are eligible, including ones outside the state or even country, as well as religiously affiliated schools that do not “inculcate” religion. However, if a religiously affiliated school does “inculcate” religion, then it is ineligible.

If these rules seem murky, they are. They raise multiple line-drawing challenges about how to define “religion” or “inculcate.” How much religion is too much religion? The state of Maine also argued in the case that taxpayers should not have to support beliefs they disagree with, but does that also apply if taxpayers oppose certain secular teachings? Viewed in the context of our ongoing battles about the secularization of America or the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, Carson raises questions that are — or should be — broadly relevant.

Several justices explored these themes during oral arguments. Chief Justice John Roberts probed where and how Maine would draw the line between a religious school that inculcated students in religion and one that did not. “(I)f they just had one chapel service every day … are they going to (be qualified for the program)?” he asked. Christopher Taub, the attorney for Maine, wasn’t sure but felt that mandatory chapel service would probably cross the line. “All right, let’s skip the chapel service and say it’s just mandatory history class, but they have a particular view of the Crusades that not everybody might share,” Roberts pressed. Again, Taub was not sure.

Justice Samuel Alito took another tack. What if the school “infused (its) religious beliefs into all aspects of the community” but those beliefs were that “all people are created equal … nobody should be subjected to any form of invidious discrimination … everybody is worthy of respect and should be treated with dignity and that everybody has an obligation to make contributions to the community and engage in charitable work.” Is Maine OK with religious inculcation if these are the beliefs being inculcated?

When Taub responded that such beliefs would be permissible under Maine’s program, Alito pointed out that those beliefs are “pretty close to Unitarianism Universalism.” Wouldn’t that be discrimination if Maine was favoring Unitarian beliefs over other religions’ beliefs? And wouldn’t that create incentives for religious schools to deemphasize certain beliefs in order to be eligible for funding?

More broadly, a program like Maine’s gives public officials the power to decide which beliefs are OK to support through public funds and which ones are not. All Americans should find that worrisome.

Early on during oral arguments, Justice Stephen Breyer brought up the teachings of the religious schools in question. They don’t hire gay teachers and they teach that “man is superior to the woman.” Justice Elena Kagan followed up by saying that if states must give money to schools that teach ideas many taxpayers find repulsive, the community would be divided: “People won’t understand why in the world their taxpayer dollars are going to discriminatory schools.”

Perhaps Breyer’s and Kagan’s points recalled for other justices a raging dispute happening now in public schools. Later during arguments, Alito asked whether Maine would deny funds to schools teaching a “purely materialistic view of life.” Or what if the school taught critical race theory? Marxism and Leninism would absolutely be prohibited, Taub responded. White supremacy would be, too. As for critical race theory — it would depend on whether the theory was “antithetical to a public education.”

This line of questioning raised issues important to different sides of the political aisle. Some Americans believe that teachings on racial equity are key to a public-school education. Some Americans believe that cultivating the place of religion — including religious schools — in the public square is critical for our future generations. How the justices navigate these matters in Carson has important implications for our national conversations on education and religion in the public square.

Asma T. Uddin is a lawyer and the author of “When Islam Is Not a Religion” and “The Politics of Vulnerability.” She is also a contributing writer to the Deseret News.