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Atheists to Supreme Court: A Religiously Neutral Education is Not Discriminatory and Not an Excuse to Fund Christian Schools

Washington, D.C.—Today, the religious equality watchdog American Atheists filed an amicus brief in Carson v. Makin, a Supreme Court case that could force Maine taxpayers to fund Christian schools. The plaintiffs falsely argue that a religiously neutral education is discriminatory. American Atheists is urging the Court to see through this false claim and not strip Maine’s church-state separation safeguards from the law, compromising atheist and religious minority students’ freedom of religion.

Maine’s constitution requires that the state provide public education, including secondary school. School districts can operate their own middle and high schools, contract with qualified private schools (i.e. schools without religious curricula), or provide tuition assistance to parents so that they can contract independently with a qualified private school. Maine offers this third option because many counties in Maine are so rural that they cannot maintain their own secondary schools.

The petitioners in Carson v. Makin are parents living in rural counties that neither operate their own secondary schools nor contract with a qualified private school. They claim the state is discriminating against them because they must choose between either a government-subsidized secular education at a qualified private school or a religious education they pay for themselves.

“There’s a movement among religious extremists in the U.S. that views any government action that does not explicitly favor them as being hostile to them. This dualistic, with-us-or-against-us attitude makes the rational application of the First Amendment nearly impossible,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel at American Atheists. “Maine strives to provide its residents with an education that is free of religious bias and fair for everyone.”

In their argument, the petitioners falsely conflate a secular, religiously neutral education with an “atheist education” in order to claim discrimination. If actual atheist schools existed, they would presumably teach that there are no gods and would include courses debunking religious claims, for instance. Maine’s program does not provide an “atheist education.”

“Maine is simply providing religiously neutral education, as it must. The petitioners are not suffering discrimination but are instead seeking to privilege their beliefs and receive government funding for them, at the expense of religious minorities,” added Blackwell.

If the Supreme Court rules that private schools can teach religious curricula yet still receive government funding, church-state separation safeguards that protect atheist and religious minority families would no longer apply. Once private schools that offer only religious education are considered qualified, atheist and religious minority students in rural Maine could find that only these schools are available to them. Such a change would put these students’ freedom of religion at risk by undermining their ability to receive a secular education.

American Atheists’ U.S. Secular Survey, which counted nearly 34,000 nonreligious participants, found that one in three (33.6%) respondents “who attend school or who have children attending school reported having had negative experiences in an educational setting within the past three years because of their nonreligious identity.” According to the data, young adults who live in very religious, often rural communities are “more than three times as likely to experience discrimination [in the education system] than their counterparts” living in less religious communities.

“A religiously neutral education discriminates against no one. Just as an actual atheist education, if publicly funded, would discriminate against religious people, a Christian education would likewise discriminate against atheists and religious minorities,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy. “The Supreme Court must maintain the religiously neutral system that exists—not meddle in favor of Christians and cause harm to nonreligious and religious minority families. The religious freedom and well-being of atheist and religious minority students are on the line in this case.”

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