Chip. Chip. Chip. That’s the sound of the U.S. Supreme Court steadily attacking the wall of separation between church and state, one of the foundational principles of the nation and one that has ensured the vitality of religious life in the United States.

A recent case is Carson v. Makin, a ruling that overturned a Maine law that provided taxpayer money for students in rural areas to attend private schools, with the caveat that such schools must be “nonsectarian.” In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court ruled that the “nonsectarian” clause of the law represented an unconstitutional “discrimination against religion.”

Every justice appointed by a Republican president joined the opinion.

Sonia Sotomayor, an associate justice, drafted the dissent. “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” she wrote.

The Carson ruling follows a similar, equally misguided 2020 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Last week the high court also decided in favor of a public-school football coach who conducted prayer sessions on the 50-yard line following games.

These court rulings whittle away at the establishment clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”


The rulings also ignore the fact that religion has flourished in the United States as nowhere else because of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state. By keeping the government out of the religion business, religious groups compete for “market share” in this free marketplace of religion, thereby lending dynamism and energy to American religious life unmatched anywhere else.

Taxpayer support for religious institutions alters that configuration. It obligates taxpayers to pay for sectarian education, and for all the conservative blather about the “original intent” of the founders, it ignores what the founders had to say about church-state separation.

“When a Religion is good, I conceive it will support itself,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1780, “and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its Professors are obliged to call for help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

It is no small irony that the Carson case emanated from the state of Maine. James G. Blaine, who represented Maine in Congress and served as secretary of state, is probably most famous as author of the so-called Blaine amendments, which forbade the use of taxpayer money for the support of religious, primarily Catholic, schools. Many states, but not Maine, adopted “Blaine amendments” to prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to support sectarian schools.

The state of Washington, for instance, has one of the most stringent prohibitions against the use of taxpayer funds for religious education. The relevant passage in the state constitution reads, “All schools maintained or supported wholly or in part by the public funds shall be forever free from sectarian control or influence.”


As Sandra Day O’Connor, retired associate justice and Reagan appointee, wrote in her final case on church-state separation, “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

“With growing concern for where this court will lead us next,” Sotomayor wrote, “I respectfully dissent.”

Sotomayor’s worries are well founded.

— Special to the Telegram

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