Olivia Carson and Isabella Gillis went back to school Tuesday with new designations.
The Bangor Christian Schools students, along with their parents, are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the Maine law that forbids towns without high schools to pay tuition to religious schools.
Olivia, 15, a sophomore, is the daughter of David and Amy Carson, all of Glenburn. Isabella, 16, a junior, is the daughter of Alan and Judith Gillis, all of Orrington.
“This is kind of a community,” Olivia said before school Tuesday. Her parents both graduated from Bangor Christian, which was founded in 1970 as a mission of Bangor Baptist Church, now called Crosspoint Church. “I have teachers and fellow students here I’ve known my whole life.”
The Carson and Gillis families, along with Troy and Angela Nelson of Palermo and their son, sued Robert G. Hasson Jr., commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, last week in U.S. District Court in Bangor.
Glenburn, Orrington and Palermo don’t have their own high schools, and the families argue in their complaint that Maine’s tuition law “violates the principle that the government must not discriminate against, or impose legal difficulties on, religious individuals or institutions simply because they are religious.”
The Maine Attorney General’s Office, which is expected to defend the commissioner, declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.
Isabella attended Center Drive School in Orrington from kindergarten through eighth grade. The family had assumed she’d attend John Bapst Memorial High School, her mother said Tuesday as her daughter rehearsed for a worship service on the first day of school. Olivia’s brother attends Brewer High School.
“She visited there but was not interested in going to Bapst, so she started at Hampden Academy,” Judy Gillis said. “She was not thriving there, so she asked to come here and we agreed.”
All three families are being represented by attorneys with the Institute for Justice in Mesa, Arizona, and the First Liberty Institute in Washington, D.C. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld the tuition ban twice — in 1997 and 2002 — but the new challenge is based on a recent decision by the nation’s highest court.
“We have filed this case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer,” Tim Keller, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, said last week in an email. “In that case, the Supreme Court held that the state of Missouri could not, consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, exclude a religious school from a grant program that reimbursed schools for resurfacing their playgrounds with recycled tires.”
In writing for the majority in the 7-2 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution … and cannot stand.”
The institute has filed similar lawsuits in federal courts in Montana and Washington state.
Judy Gillis, whose family has attended Crosspoint Church for about four years, said that her family agreed to be part of the lawsuit because the state tuition law is discriminatory.
“We believe it is discrimination to not allow this school to be a choice because it’s Christian, even though it is fully accredited like all the other schools,” she said. “It’s really being left out just because it’s Christian.”
How a ruling in the families’ favor would affect enrollment at Bangor Christian is unclear, headmaster Jeffrey Benjamin said Monday in an email.
“There are families in surrounding towns that would like to send their children to BCS but cannot due to finances,” he said. “I simply do not have specific knowledge of how many would qualify.”
This fall, 295 students are enrolled at Bangor Christian, located on outer Broadway, including 94 at the high school, according to Benjamin. Annual tuition at the school is $4,450 for a student in kindergarten through fifth grade and $4,950 for students in grades six through 12, according to information posted on its website.
The Nelson family can only afford to send one of their children to Temple Academy, a Christian school, in Waterville, the complaint said. The other attends Erskine Academy in South China, which is the school most students in Palermo attend.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.