Sotomayor accuses conservatives of ‘dismantling’ church-state separation

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(The Hill) — Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court’s most outspoken liberal, accused the court’s six-member conservative majority of eroding the barrier between church and state on Tuesday by striking down a Maine policy that barred religious schools from receiving taxpayer-funded tuition aid.

“This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Sotomayor wrote, dissenting from the 6-3 decision that broke along ideological lines.

“[I]n just a few years, the Court has upended constitutional doctrine,” she added, “shifting from a rule that permits States to decline to fund religious organizations to one that requires States in many circumstances to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars.”

Maine law gives school-age children the right to free public education. But because many rural districts lack a public high school, a workaround was devised that allows these students to attend nearby qualifying private schools with public assistance.

The Maine law at issue in the case had deemed schools with religious instruction ineligible for the program.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, sided with a group of Maine parents who sued over the law, with the conservative justices ruling that the challengers’ constitutional religious protections were violated.

“Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Roberts wrote for the majority. “Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.”

Sotomayor also joined in part a separate dissent written by fellow liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, whose opinion was joined in full by Justice Elena Kagan, the court’s third liberal member.

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