Carson v. Makin Decision Affirms Religious Exercise as Constitutionally Protected

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) is pleased with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Carson v. Makin that affirms the interpretation of free exercise to include not only religious status, but also religious exercise as constitutionally protected.

Dale McDonald, PBVM, Ph.D., NCEA’s Vice President of Public Policy, noted that in rejecting the argument that distinctions be made between the status of a school as a religious entity and the use of funding for religious purposes the Court affirmed the purpose of Catholic education: "Educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school." NCEA welcomes the opportunity to continue that mission as the decision may provide impetus to expand choice programs in other states. Political opposition may still be present, but applicants need not fear constitutional prohibitions.

This decision states that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion.” States cannot discriminate against an institution either because of its religious affiliation or its religious exercise when administering an otherwise publicly available benefit.

The ruling builds upon the decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue: "A State need not subsidize private education [b]ut once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools."

In 2002, the Court ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris set the precedent and model for school choice programs: a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause.

The implications of the Carson v. Makin decision indicates that state Blaine amendments likely will be invalidated; will not be used as precedents in future cases. The Blaine amendments, named for Republican Representative James Gillespie Blaine of Maine in the 1870s, sought to augment the general language of the First Amendment to the Constitution by placing restrictions on the use of public funds by states for the support of religious institutions. In 1875, the amendment passed the House but narrowly failed in the Senate; however, many states added similar amendments to their constitutions at that time and the amendment still stands today in 37 states.

Carson v. Makin Decision: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/20-1088_dbfi.pdf

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