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August 19, 2022

Should public tuition assistance be used to attend religious schools? Sen. Mike Lee thinks so

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks during an election night event for Republican candidates in at the Utah Association of
Realtors building in Sandy on Nov. 3, 2020. Lee wants the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Maine law that prevents students from receiving tuition assistance if they choose to attend schools the state deems religious or “sectarian.” (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee wants the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a Maine law that prevents students from receiving tuition assistance if they choose to attend schools the state deems religious or sectarian.

Lee and 11 Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., filed an amicus brief Friday in Carson v. Makin, a clash over the rules governing Maine’s tuition assistance program that the high court will hear in its 2021-22 term.

“Congress and the Supreme Court have long understood the value of both religious and secular education institutions,” Lee said in a statement. “Students should not be punished for attending a school where faith is taught, and states should not be able to discriminate against citizens who choose to live and learn their faith in school.”

Maine allows families who live in towns that don’t have district public schools to use public money to attend a private or religious school as long as the institution doesn’t promote its faith or belief system or teach through the lens of faith.

Congress has long made scholarships equally available to students who choose to use the funds for a religious education at a sectarian school, the senators argue.

“The fact that the funds in these cases might be used in part to teach religious principles to students along with reading, writing, and arithmetic did not — and does not — matter,” according to the 26-page brief.

“Refusing funds to religious organizations who included various religious principles in their curricula would have hindered Congress’s efforts to provide as many children as possible with a quality education, as religious groups historically were one of the primary drivers of educational expansion.”

The Maine program was open to religious schools for more than a century before the state’s attorney general changed the policy.

In October 2020, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the religious exclusion in the tuition assistance program for high school students. The Institute for Justice petitioned the Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision in February.

Lee and the senators say the United States has valued education and seen it as an integral part of a free society from its infancy.

“To that end, Congress — entrusted with the will of the people — has worked for over two hundred years to increase educational opportunities for Americans,” they argue. “History shows that Congress repeatedly allocated funds to advance education without fear of triggering Establishment Clause concerns.”

Congress, the brief says, recognized that religious education often brought with it societal benefits.

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