WASHINGTON — After imposing a strict church-state separation for decades, the Supreme Court appears poised to allow — and in some cases even require — more government funding of church-run schools.
Legal experts say that could open the door to church-sponsored charter schools operating with public funds in many cities.
The court's shift to the right on religion and schools may not be as sharp and dramatic as on abortion and guns, but its impact could prove to be just as far-reaching.
Previously the high court held the Constitution called for a clear separation of church and state, which had long been interpreted to mean that public funds could not flow to religious schools.
But in recent years, the court's conservatives have flipped the equation and argued this exclusion amounts to discrimination against religion.
On Wednesday, the court will hear a new test of church-state separation in a case from Maine, which has no public high schools in some rural communities.
The state pays tuition to send those students to private high schools, but only if they are "nonsectarian" schools. The state adopted this rule 40 years ago believing it was required as a matter of church-state separation.
Now this seemingly small case is at the center of a large dispute over when religious schools are entitled to public funding. And it arrives at a time when the court's conservative majority has been strengthened.
Conservative justices in recent years have been insisting that the tradition of church-state separation should be cast aside because it grew from an anti-Catholic bias in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
"It was an open secret that 'sectarian' was code for 'Catholic,'" Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote last year describing the common state laws that prohibit sending tax money to schools affiliated with a church.