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Why American Muslims Should Celebrate A SCOTUS Victory For Christian Private Schools

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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.

The Muslim civil rights organization I serve, 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.

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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 choicewith 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 in a 6-3 vote, citing recent court precedent 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 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 secularismwhich is more French than Americancould 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. For that reason, we welcomed this important precedent. American Muslims around the country should now use it to defend our rights and the rights of our neighbors.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Hamza21

    June 29, 2022 at 4:29 PM

    Wow talk about being misinformed and shortsightedness!

    It’s as if the author are not aware of the East Ramapo, New York fiasco.

    https://www.thisamericanlife.org/534/a-not-so-simple-majority

    It’s very disconcerting an CAIR official doesn’t understand what’s happening in politics today. “they are also policy issues for a legislature to consider, not constitutional issues for a court to decide.” The very same legislatures who passed restrictive and abusive election laws that clearly discriminate against minorities and others not aligned with far right?

    Essentially the message is trust in the system. The elected officials will never harm you. You must be joking.

  2. Yousef Ayub

    July 1, 2022 at 8:44 AM

    Asalamulakum Hamza21. May you receive this post with blessing from Allah. There is a difference between trusting the system and dealing with the system. The first assumes the system is right and demands obedience which is against Islamic principles. Even Muslim scholars do not get the benefit of the doubt of being right all the time. On the other side is dealing with the system which is acknowledging when it is wrong, unjust or misplaced and at the same time, agreeing with it when it is right, just or accurate. Many Clinical Psychologist disagree with the DSM for diagnosing mental illness yet understand that the DSM is all they have to work with. So improvements are made and progress is the objective and better healthy people the goal. Likewise, the Supreme Court and the Constitution do not provide Islamic answers and often can be very unislamic, but it is what we have to deal with and in this case, it helps rather than hurts. The alternative is to have open rebellion which on many occasions is referenced in the hadiths as Haram and chaotic and history shows where such rebellions’ lead.

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