Why American Muslims Should Celebrate a SCOTUS Victory for Religious Private Schools

Photo by Ian Hutchinson on Unsplash

By Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR National Deputy Director

When the Supreme Court overturned a Maine law that barred students from using state tuition assistance to attend private religious schools, critics of the decision cried foul.

The 6–3 majority was accused of everything from tearing down the wall between church and state to forcing taxpayers to fund religious indoctrination. Some critics even equated the justices with theocrats and Christian nationalists.

Our Muslim civil rights organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, reacted differently. We joined many faith groups, private schools and First Amendment advocates in welcoming the Court’s ruling.

To understand why the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group and some other Muslim voices would celebrate a win for Christian private schools in Maine, you have to cut through the noise and understand what the case was really about. It wasn’t about secularism. It was about discrimination.

Decades ago, Maine established a program that offered tuition assistance to students who lived in areas without a secondary public school. Students could use the state tuition assistance to cover the cost of attending a local private school of their choice — with one exception: students couldn’t use the tuition assistance for a private religious school.

Families of students who wanted to attend private religious school sued, arguing that the denial of a public benefit solely because of their religious character constituted unconstitutional discrimination in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

The Court agreed, citing recent court precent holding that “a State need not subsidize private education…[b]ut once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

CAIR and other Muslims groups do not often agree with this Supreme Court, which in recent years approved the third iteration of President Trump’s Muslim Ban and allowed Alabama to execute a Muslim incarceree prisoner without his imam present, among other objectionable and constitutionally dubious rulings.

But in Carson vs. Makin, the Court issued a sound ruling that recognizes the rights of all people of faith. Going forward, if any state extends a public benefit like tuition assistance to members of the public, the state cannot exclude people of faith from that benefit simply because of their religious identity.

To be clear, this constitutional issue of whether states can exclude religious schools from tuition assistance programs for private schools was separate from the debate over whether states should provide tuition assistance for students to attend private schools.

Critics have argued that school choice programs inevitably result in funding cuts for public schools, de facto segregation, and other problems. Some Muslims have also argued that school funding programs will mostly benefit Christian schools, which greatly outnumber Jewish and Muslim private schools.

Those are reasonable concerns to raise, but they are also policy issues for a legislature to consider, not constitutional issues for a court to decide. Perhaps Maine should not give out tuition assistance for students to attend any private schools. But as long as the state does so, it cannot discriminate against religious private schools.

That’s why our civil rights organization welcomed this ruling, which represents an important precedent in the fight to protect religious rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

In recent decades, some political activists and legal scholars have gone from viewing the separation of church and state as a shield to protect people of faith from the government (and vice versa) to viewing it as a weapon to exclude people of faith from the public sphere.

In a worst-case scenario, this extreme interpretation of secularism — which is more French than American — could exclude faith-based institutions from public benefits, punish government employees for visibly practicing their faith, and force people of faith to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

This is not what the First Amendment requires, as Carson v. Makin reminds us, nor is it a vision American Muslims should support. For that reason, CAIR welcomed this important precedent. American Muslims around the country should now use it to defend our rights and the rights of our neighbors.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell is a civil rights attorney who serves as the National Deputy Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America’s largest Muslim civil rights organization.