U.S. Supreme Court Releases Two Decisions Related to Public Education

A close-up picture of the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
U.S. Supreme Court Building

OLYMPIA — June 27, 2022 — Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Carson v. Makin that the state of Maine violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment when it refused to make public funding available for students to attend private schools that provide religious instruction. Today, the Court ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that public school employees may engage in voluntary prayer during school activities so long as they do not require or coerce students to participate.

Carson v. Makin

This case challenged the constitutionality of a school voucher program in Maine that pays the tuition for some students to attend private schools when their own school district — often in rural areas — does not operate a public high school. In its ruling, the Court decided that if Maine provides publicly-funded tuition vouchers for students to attend private nonsectarian schools, they must also provide the same vouchers for students to attend private sectarian schools that provide religious instruction.

This ruling will not impact Washington state in any way. Each and every young person in our state has the opportunity to attend our public schools for their K–12 education.

Washington has a long and proud history of supporting and strengthening our public schools, and our students, educators, communities, and our economy continue to benefit from those investments. Our public schools are governed by school board directors who are elected locally, and they are accountable to the public.

“Washington does not have a K–12 voucher program, and this ruling will not impact our state’s long-held value of keeping public taxpayer money focused on public institutions,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. “I will not support voucher programs or other privatization efforts in Washington state. They have proven to be discriminatory, segregating in nature, and inconsistent with the laws of the State of Washington.”

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District

This case challenged a directive by the Bremerton School District that suspended a high school football coach for conducting prayers on the football field after high school football games. In its ruling, the Court affirmed that public school employees have a legal right to engage in individual prayer during school activities so long as it is not part of the employee’s official responsibilities and there is not an explicit or implied expectation that students or other staff join the prayer.

It remains illegal and unethical for public school employees to coerce, pressure, persuade, or force students, players, staff, or other participants to engage in any religious practice as a condition of playing, employment, belonging, or participation. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and local school districts will continue to investigate complaints of any public school official who attempts to use their positional authority or taxpayer resources to compel anybody associated with the school, including students, to participate in religious expression of any form.

“Individuals have always held express rights to exercise their own faith within reasonable limits in public spaces,” Reykdal said. “This ruling affirms that right, but it also retains the long-held understanding that church and state (public entities) are separate. Schools will not embrace a particular faith or compel any individual to participate or recognize any faith or religious practice.”

“Washington state’s long history of civil rights and religious freedom will not be altered by this ruling,” Reykdal continued. “Students and staff will remain free of any sanctioned religious beliefs or practices in the course of their public education.”

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