US Supreme Court upholds state money for religious universities

Ruling at school level seen as affirming situations involving colleges

July 2, 2020
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The US Supreme Court has forbidden states from excluding sectarian schools from taxpayer funding in a ruling aimed at pre-university level but reinforcing similar rights for students of religiously affiliated colleges.

The court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld a programme in Montana that uses state funding to support scholarship money for students in the state’s private schools, most of which have a religious association.

“A state need not subsidise private education, but once it decides to do so it cannot disqualify some private schools because they are religious,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

The decision essentially gives the approval of the nation’s top court to a similar case in 2008 involving Colorado Christian University, in which a federal court allowed its students to receive state aid.

Such scholarship funding is less common at the postsecondary level, although its legality there is now clear, said Kim Colby, director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom at the Christian Legal Society.

Republicans, including the Trump administration, hailed the Supreme Court decision as a victory for religious freedom. Critics called it another violation of the constitutional principle of church-state separation.

“Too often, religious schools reject civil rights for women and LGBTQ people, and promulgate religiously based interpretations of science, civics and history,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a statement.

The Supreme Court ruling, however, maintains the ban on public funding for any students who are pursuing explicitly religious instruction, such as those training to become a minister, Ms Colby said.

Removing that ban remains a goal of religious institutions, Ms Colby said. “We think it’s still discrimination against the individual,” she said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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