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A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities October 16, 2021

Well, not really two cities. More like one mini-city and a small town. And this little scribble is obviously not on the scale of Charles Dickens monumental historical novel about London and Paris during the French Revolution. This is about two places with the same name…Bangor.

An article in the October issue of Church & State magazine[i] (hereafter C&S) caught my eye when I saw that name. It was about Bangor, Maine, a smallish city of about 33,000. Even so, it is the third-largest city in Maine. I grew up in a different Bangor, a small town in rural southwestern Michigan. The population was less than 2000 when I lived there 70 years ago. The 2020 census counted 1885, so it hasn’t changed much. As my dad often said:

“The population of Bangor never changes. Every time a girl gets pregnant, a guy leaves town.”

Enough about that Bangor, where nothing much ever happens. The other one in Maine has a big legal battle going on right now, and it is about to become a Supreme Court case. Since the article is in C&S, you can probably guess that the case has something to do with religious organizations trying to influence government. In this case, it is private religious schools that are demanding funding from the state.

These schools do not even pretend to be offering a secular education. Listen to their description of their “mission” from their student handbook.

“In order to maintain the Evangelical philosophy of our school, at least one parent/guardian should be born-again and in regular attendance at a Bible-believing church as we are committed to working with Christian families,” it states. “No student will be enrolled whose parents do not understand and support our Christian philosophy, goals, and standards and/or are unwilling to have their children trained in accordance with these ideals. Parents should understand that we seek to lead every student to a personal, saving knowledge of Christ. Students from homes with serious differences with the school’s biblical basis and/or its doctrines will not be accepted at Temple Academy.”

In other words, they discriminate against nonbelievers…and maybe even believers who are not devout enough. And they teach religious belief.

Maine, because of its small and sparse population has an unconventional method of funding the education of their kids. More than half of the public school districts in Maine don’t operate their own high schools. Instead, students are given tax money to attend private schools in Maine, or in other states or at public districts that have high schools. In the case of private schools, there’s a catch: The schools must not use the funds for religious education. Temple Academy requires a course in the Bible, and mandates that all students own a King James Version. That seems like a slam dunk disqualification for state funding, doesn’t it?

But with the U.S. Supreme Court growing increasingly receptive to the idea of taxpayer funding of religious education, a group of parents decided the time was right to try to force the state to fund the religious education they desire for their children. The result is a new legal controversy that has landed on the high court’s docket, one that could result in even more taxpayer money flowing into the coffers of private religious schools.

The case, Carson v. Makin, is sponsored by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian organization that has long sought to erode public education and other government-provided services. The case raises questions about what qualifies as religious instruction, and whether states can be forced to subsidize such instruction. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the parents’ argument that they must be allowed to send their children to religious schools at taxpayer expense in part because the curriculum at the Christian schools in question is saturated with religion. Thus, the appeals court held, extending state aid to these institutions would subsidize religious instruction and proselytism.

Rejecting the parents’ argument, the appeals court ruled 3-0 in the fall of 2020 that schools whose educational program is religious have no right to shoehorn their way into the program.

“Sectarian schools are denied funds not because of who they are but because of what they would do with the money – use it to further the religious purposes of inculcation and proselytization,” observed Judge David Barron. Barron added, “Nothing suggests that the government penalizes a fundamental right simply because it declines to subsidize it.” 

Given the current religious right-wing bias of the SCOTUS, I fear the results of this case could undermine church-state separation for a long time…until we get a Court that remembers what the Establishment Clause means..and that free exercise does not mean a free ride on the taxpayers’ dime.

 

 

[i] https://support.au.org/church-state/october-2021-church-state-magazine/featured/compelled-contributions-a-new-supreme


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