John Roberts played the long game on state funding of religious schools

Chief Justice John Roberts has been laying the groundwork for years for Tuesday's sweeping decision requiring states to fund religious education.

But he always tried to signal some caution. Five years ago, in a financing dispute involving a church school in Missouri, he even added a footnote that said the Supreme Court decision applied only to money for playground resurfacing. Fellow conservatives called him out and suggested the caveat was preposterous because the decision would, of course, reach other religious funding cases.

And it did, by Roberts' own hand -- in 2020 and then on Tuesday, when the strategic chief justice took a giant stride and wrote the decision holding that Maine must pay for religious education as part of a tuition-assistance program for private schools. The rationale once cast as limited to playgrounds has been extended to a swath of religious instruction.

Tuesday's opinion reinforces Roberts' conservative bona fides, even as he regularly tries to find middle ground to enhance the court's institutionalism and image.