If Maine Subsidizes Secondary Schools, It May Not Exclude Sectarian Schools, Supreme Court Concludes


CARSON, AS PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND OF O. C., ET AL. v. MAKIN, No.  20-1088.  U.S. Supreme Court June 21, 2022.


Maine is the most rural state in the nation.  Some geographic “School Administrative Units” have no public secondary schools through which to provide the education promised by the state. To ameliorate the strain families who must make arrangements for their children, Maine offers tuition assistance to parents so that their children may access secondary education through qualified schools outside the geographic confines of the School Administrative Units.

At one time, Maine did not distinguish between sectarian and non-sectarian schools for purposes of funding parents’ preferences.  In 1981, Maine determined that this practice was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Parents who selected schools with religious orientation challenged Maine’s denial of tuition assistance as violative of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause, triggering what appears to be an annual (or at least semi-annual) head on collision between the Establishment Clause, which precludes government endorsement of religion, and the Free Exercise Clause, which forbids government interference with religious practice.

While the petitioners’ litigation was pending, the Supreme Court struck down a Montana statute that forbade aid to any church controlled school as offensive to the Free Exercise Clause.   Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, 591 U. S. ___ (2020).  While this removed from the consideration of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit any reliance on prior precedent that would affirm Maine’s refusal to provide tuition assistance that would permit students to attend sectarian schools.

Nonetheless, the First Circuit distinguished away Espinoza because Maine, unlike Montana, concerned itself with religious use of funds as opposed to a blanket prohibition based on religious identify. Moreover, the First Circuit perceived another distinguishable difference between Montana and Maine, because Maine intends to provide the equivalent of a public school education not otherwise available in a student’s location.  As public school education is secular, no constitutional harm is done by limiting tuition assistance to parents whose children will attend secular schools.

The Supreme Court’s majority has concluded that the Maine tuition assistance scheme fails to comport with the Free Exercise Clause because it conditions the availability of an otherwise available public benefit based on a requirement of ‘non-sectarianism’ within accredited schools.

That the Free Exercise Clause prohibits indirect burdens on religious exercise has recently been re-emphasized by the Court, not only with respect to participation in public contracts, as in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U. S. ___ (2017), but also with respect to providing funding assistance to private education, as in Espinoza, supra.  In neither case can religion be interposed as a disqualifier precluding access to benefits otherwise available to all. 

The Court noted that a state need not fund private education.  If a state chooses to do so, however, the state may not preclude participation because of religious affiliation. 

In dissent, Justice Breyer expressed fear that the majority view — which requires other citizens to subsidize, through taxation — aid to religious views they might find objectionable — threatens to foment the kind of discord that the tension between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses were intended to inhibit.  This is all the more so in this case, where not just religious affiliation but religious instruction within the curriculum is in issue. 

In Justice Breyer’s view, the Religion Clauses serve the nation well by precluding state involvement in religion and by prohibiting state restraint of religion.

Justice Breyer sees the majority’s decision as introducing religion into public education, the provision of which is contemplated by Maine’s statutory scheme.  

Notwithstanding the not infrequent tension between the religion clauses, their overall purpose is to function as complements in creating a government that is benevolently neutral. The Court has previously expressed that the Religion Clauses ”permit religious exercise..without sponsorship or interference,” as this would “insure that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded, and none inhibited.” Walz v. Tax Comm’n of the City of New York, 397 U.S. 664, 669 (1970).  

Separately dissenting, Justice Sotomayor has expressed dismay that the Court has chartered a dangerous course, essentially eviscerating the Establishment Clause in service of the Free Exercise Clause.  Justice Sotomayor observes that, rather than stressing that the government need not fund religious activity, the Court has embraced the idea that the states may now be compelled “to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars.”  Sotomayor, J., Dissent, Slip. Op. at 3.

Carson v. Makin, 596 U.S. ____ (2022)

No Place Like Stay-at-Home for the Holidays: New York Continues to Defend Against Free Exercise Challenges to Restrictions Imposed on “Houses of Worship”


Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20-3571; Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20-3520 (2nd Cir.) December 28, 2020.


New York continues to contest the application of strict scrutiny review to portions of an order entered last October singling out “houses of worship” for particular capacity restrictions notwithstanding the determination of the U.S. Supreme Court that this most rigorous review is apt for these circumstances. On Monday, the Second Circuit directed a trial court to enjoin enforcement of the restrictions and to conduct further proceedings in light of the Supreme Court’s and the Second Circuit’s determinations.

In conformity with the United States Supreme Court’s analysis, the Second Circuit found the New York orders are subject to strict scrutiny analysis and are not narrowly tailored to serve the important goal of deterring the spread of COVID-19.

Both Jewish and Catholic entities have challenged, under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the New York Governor’s orders that are alleged to be unduly harsh toward religion while favoring “essential” secular enterprises and activities.

The state has limited attendance in churches or synagogues on either a fixed number of attendees or a fixed percentage of capacity basis Although the Governor no longer defends the fixed capacity limits, the percentage of capacity limits remain contested, as the Governor has recently asserted that building code calculations differ for certain activities and this may produce different results for secular and religious activities.

The Second Circuit noted that the Free Exercise Clause will not relieve religious groups or individuals from neutral general laws but where a law unduly burdens religion, that law must be subjected to strict scrutiny.

In these cases, the appellate panel held, the Governor’s action on its face singles out religion for different treatment in the absence of any reason for so doing, and there has been no evidence adduced that lesser risks predominated in designating activities as ‘essential.’

Both the fixed number and percentage of capacity measures failed in the Supreme Court’s view, as the distinction between religious and secular groups is premised on an impermissible view of religion as inessential.

The Governor has never argued that its orders are narrowly tailored to inhibit disease, the appellate court observed, and has conceded that the limits on houses of worship are more severe than needed. The absence of any relationship between the number of persons admissible to a house of worship and its overall capacity only underscores this deficiency in the

Governor’s policy.

The notion that the percentage of capacity rules may be salvageable under rational basis analysis has arisen late in the day and will be reviewed on remand.

Similarly consistent with the Supreme Court’s review of these cases, the Second Circuit stressed that Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), is not controlling. Not only were different interests involved in Jacobson, but Jacobson itself stressed that exercises of emergency powers must nonetheless be constitutional.

It is not the law that houses of worship are exempt from constraints during public health emergencies. They are subject to emergency regulations but religious entities cannot be subjected to regulations that are different from and more harsh than those that apply to other entities because of their religious nature.

Denial of First Amendment rights is presumptively harmful, the Second Circuit observed. Moreover, the appellate court stated that the trial court erred in its earlier suggestion that observant religious persons could work around some of the restrictions. It is not for courts to interpret or to inject themselves into the meaning of any religious practices, or to suggest that religious groups ought to abandon their practices in favor of equivalents or substitutes in order to avoid constitutional harm.  Such intrusions by the courts would only compound harms to religious interests.

If the Governor’s arguments concerning percentage of capacity limitations are not persuasive on remand, the appellate panel noted, it will be fair for the trial court to presume there has been harm.

The Second Circuit concluded by noting that the public interest is not served by policies that deny constitutionally secured rights where alternatives exist that could avoid such injuries.

Agudath Isr. of Am. v. Cuomo (2nd Cir. 2020) December 28, 2020

The Constitution Is Not Under Quarantine: U.S. Supreme Court Enjoins New York’s Pandemic Restrictions on Religious Gatherings



Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No 20A87; Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20A90, 592 U.S.  _____. Injunctions pending appeal entered November 25, 2020.


The Supreme Court has enjoined the operation of New York’s executive orders limiting religious gatherings pending resolution of Free Exercise challenges in the Second Circuit or regulation of any petition for certiorari.  The court’s ostensibly per curiam opinion is accompanied by two separate concurrences and three separate dissents.

Executive Orders concerning public health have been issued and been modified and remain in effect or subject to further modification since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic.  These emergency measures, in board brush, are an admixture of geographic zones of danger combined with purportedly correlative restraints on public gatherings for secular or religious purposes.  The measures may be enhanced or relaxed as the perception of prevalence or risk changes. 

Both Orthodox Jewish and Catholic organizations have challenged the imposition of restraints on attendance at religious services in New York during the Covid-19 pandemic as violative of the  Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The restrictions apply to the religious entities more harshly than the more liberal constraints on ‘essential’ or commercial entities, they have argued.  The measures have no bearing on reality, the petitioners submit, as there is no reason for limiting the numbers of those who may attend services to an inordinately small number where in fact churches and synagogues have the capacity to accommodate hundreds.  

There is no question of compliance and there have been no known incidents of illness relating to the operation of the synagogues and services. 

Both petitioners were denied relief in the district and appellate courts.  Decision on the merits in the Second Circuit awaits briefing and argument in December.

Immediately after petitions were filed in the United States Supreme Court, the Governor relaxed restraints that had applied.  

The Governor has argued that the pandemic restrictions favor churches and that no relief is necessary as the measures complained of are no longer in effect.

The Supreme Court has disagreed.  

The Supreme Court has concluded that strict scrutiny must be applied to the emergency measures, and that these measures cannot withstand this scrutiny, as there is no doubt of the impact on religion and no support for the capacity of the measures to serve the government’s ends.  Because the measures recently relaxed may be just as suddenly enhanced, the threats to the religious groups remain real and palpable.  As the groups have established a likelihood of success on the merits, and as the harm to first amendment interests is present and ongoing, relief pending review in the Second Circuit is appropriate. 

The Court’s per curiam opinion makes plain that the latitude accorded the political branches to act to ensure public health during crises is not unlimited:  “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” particularly where the restrictions in question strike at core constitutional concerns.  Slip Op. at pp. 5-6.  

Justice Gorsuch wrote separately to stress the vitality of the Constitution during the pandemic, stressing that “Government is not free to disregard the First amendment in times of crisis.”  Slip. Gorsuch dissent  at 2.  The particular orders in issue, subject by their nature to strict scrutiny analysis, merit the observation that public health has uncannily allied with secular convenience.  If the Constitution  has “taken a holiday” during the pandemic, this may not be permitted to become “a sabbatical.”  Gorsuch dissent at 3.  

Justice Gorsuch takes particular aim at the Supreme Court’s and the lower courts’ reliance on Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11  (1905 ) as support for plenary emergency powers during crises that must be accorded judicial deference.  Jacobson involved different rights and offered the affected a range of options, which the restrictions upon churches do not.  As the current restrictions involve core constitutional concerns, Jacobson does not control.  Even if deference is due the political branches, all emergency measures must measure up to Constitutional commands.  

Justice Kavanaugh wrote a separate concurrence, noting that New York’s restrictions are more stringent than those of other locations.  Once discriminatory measures are imposed, it is not good enough to not that they apply to others, he observed.  Once a favored class is created, the state must say why those who are less favored are excluded.  

Justice Kavanaugh takes a programmatic view of the Court’s offer of relief.  If the recently relaxed regulations are abandoned, the petitioners will be protected but if there is not change there is no impact.  The petitioners will at least be permitted some clarity during the pending appellate process.

Chief Justice Roberts has dissented, opining that there is no injunctive relief required where the challenged measures are no longer in effect.  If that were to change the petitioners could return to the court. An order instructing the governor not to do what is not being done cannot be said to meet the standards required for awarding injunctive relief.  

Justice Breyer, with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, have joined in dissent to emphasize that there is no present need for intervention and that if intervention was needed, the parties could return and the need for relief could be promptly assessed and addressed.  The justices opine that it is not clear that the restrictions violate the Free Exercise clause and that the interests of public health  and  safety must be balanced against religion.  The courts have and must continue to recognize that assessments and interventions affecting public health crises, with their concomitant likely needs for prompt action, are the province of the political branches.  

Justice Sotomayor, with Justice Kagan, wrote a separate dissent, expressing fear that further suffering may follow from the Supreme Court’s order.  The worry is that success of the stringent measures has rendered them inapplicable, yet because of the court’s intervention, the more stringent measures may not be revived if they are needed. In Justice Sotomayor’s view, New York’s actions fall comfortably within the confines of prior analyses that hold that a law is not necessarily constitutionally infirm if it impacts religion provided there is reasonable parity with secular restrictions.  

Here, where it has been shown that New York has preferred religious gatherings over others, neither intervention nor heightened scrutiny appears apt, the justice offers.

Disregarding or second guessing the governor with respect to matters of public health is a “deadly game,” in this dissenting view.  And the mere reference to religion within the measures will not suffice to make them discriminatory.  Any statement by the governor mentioning a particular religion likewise cannot establish discrimination, where statements by the President about a religious or ethnic group were set aside by the Court in reviewing the neutrality of travel measures in their entirety.  

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo 20A87 Order November 25, 2020

Agudath Israel et al. v. Cuomo 20A90 Order November 25, 2020

The House of God v. The House of the Rising Sun: Vigorous Dissents Accompany Supreme Court’s Denial of Injunctive Relief Where Nevada Church Alleges Pandemic Measures Restrict Churches More Than Casinos

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, Governor of Nevada, No. 17A1070 (July 24, 2020).


A rural Nevada church asked the Supreme Court to enjoin state pandemic emergency measures that impose a flat numeric limit on church attendees while commercial entities such as casinos may operate at a percentage of capacity, permitting close contact for extended periods. 

The Supreme Court denied, without opinion, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley’s request.  Four justices submitted three dissenting opinions. 

Justices Alito, Thomas and Kavanaugh would grant relief, given the inexplicable and unsupported discrepancy in treatment between secular and religious gatherings as well as the irreparable harm presumed to flow from deprivation of First Amendment rights.  

The justices observed that while “…a public health emergency does not give Governors and others carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists.”  (Alito dissent, p. 3.)  Particularly as time has passed since the emergency initially arose, and new information may permit revisions, the issue of exigency has diminished while the impact of discrimination against religion has continued unabated.  

The state’s actions fare no better under speech analysis.  While the state may posit that important viewpoints are advanced during permitted public protests, this overlooks the critical truth that the constitution does not permit preferring one viewpoint over another.

Justice Gorsuch wrote a separate dissent, offering his view that the Calvary Chapel case was “simple,” in that “…there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesar’s Palace over Calvary Chapel.”  (Gorsuch dissent, p. 1.) 

Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately in dissent to emphasize that the state offered no plausible justification for its differential treatment of commercial activity and religious gatherings.  .  Justice Kavanaugh presented a primer addressing the nature and sources of religious disputes grounded in real or perceived differences in treatment of religion and other activities, and reviewing precedent addressing these cases.

Just Lawful Observes:  The concern with protracted state invocation of emergency powers permeates the dissent here, a concern that was not as apparent in May of this year, where the Court denied injunctive relief to a California church in a manner deferential to the state’s exercise of emergency powers to inhibit viral contagion during a pandemic.  South Bay United Pentacostal v. Newsom, Governor of California, No. 19a1044 (May 29, 2020). Although there were perceived differences between non-church and church activities, none were found to be inconsistent with the Free Exercise Clause. 

Calvary Chapel v. Sisolak, Governor of Nevada: Denial of Injunctive Relief and Dissenting Opinions. No. 19a1070 (July 24, 2020).

South Bay United Pentacostal v Newsom, Governor of California. No. 19a1044 (May 29, 2020).