U.S. Supreme Court to hear religious school tuition case, declines florist refusal dispute

by | Jul 7, 2021

At the end of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a trio of orders impacting religious liberty cases. Most notably, the Court agreed to hear a case by parents of high school students in Maine seeking to use the state’s private school tuition reimbursement program to send their children to religious schools. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Carson v. Makin rejected the parents’ argument that the First Amendment requires the state to include religious schools as an eligible recipient of taxpayer money in the program, which provides tuition payments for residents of districts that lack a public high school.

The Appeals Court upheld a Maine law requiring a school to be “nonsectarian” to qualify for tuition funds under the program, ruling that recent Supreme Court opinions (Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza) barring states from denying funding on the basis of religious identity do not apply in this case because it denies funding on the basis of religious use rather than religious identity.

In their petition, the plaintiff parents argued that “religious status and religious use are inseparable,” an issue that the Court controversially declined to address in Espinoza but appears to be taking on in this case. An oral argument date has not yet been set.

The Court declined to review the closely watched case of Arlene’s Flowers, Inc. v. Washington, a dispute arising from a florist’s refusal to provide custom flowers for a same-sex wedding. The Washington Supreme Court has twice ruled in favor of the state’s law against discrimination, once in 2017 and again in 2019 after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered it to reconsider the case in light of its ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop. In the second review, the Washington Supreme Court found no evidence of religious hostility in the state’s enforcement of the nondiscrimination law. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case leaves the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in place.

In a third order issued last week, the Supreme Court vacated a ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Mast v. Fillmore County, Minnesota. In that case, the state court rejected claims brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by Amish families who object to state regulations requiring the use of septic systems to dispose of water waste. The Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to reconsider the case in light of its ruling last month in Fulton v. Philadelphia. In brief opinions, Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch explained their view that the Minnesota court had not properly applied RLUIPA in its analysis.