December 14, 2019
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Federal judge rules against families seeking funding for religious schools

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Bangor Christian Schools sophomore Olivia Carson, 15, of Glenburn was dropped off on the first day of school by her mother, Amy Carson in this Aug. 28, 2018, file photo. The Carsons are one of three Maine families that are challenging the prohibition on using public money to pay tuition at religious schools.

A federal judge in Maine on Wednesday ruled against three sets of parents who sought to have the towns without high schools where they live pay public tuition to religious schools.

Lawyers for the families said they will appeal the ruling to the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston and, if necessary, the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby issued his nine-page ruling two days after hearing oral arguments in Portland.

Hornby based his ruling on a prior appellate court decision that found Maine’s ban on public funding for religious schools constitutional.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, who sued the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, filed their challenge to the Maine policy in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. That case found that the state of Missouri could not disqualify preschool programs from a subsidy for shredded tires on their playgrounds solely because they were run by a church.

Five justices in that case agreed that the decision applied only to playground resurfacing and did not address other forms of funding, Hornby wrote. Hornby also said he doubted whether religious schools in Maine would seek public funds, which would require the schools to adhere to the Maine Human Rights Act when it came to hiring and firing LGBTQ staff and teachers. Religious schools currently are exempt from the law because they do not take public funds.

Marc Malon, spokesman for the Maine attorney general’s office, which defended the education commissioner, praised the decision Wednesday.

“We are pleased by the decision and believe it speaks for itself,” he said “We have no further comment on any potential appeal.”

A plaintiff in the case said she was disappointed but would fight on.

“We’re disappointed that today’s ruling did not end Maine’s discrimination against religious schools,” said Judy Gillis of Orrington, whose daughter Olivia attends Bangor Christian Schools. “However, we are waging this fight not only for our own daughter, but for every family that wants to send their son or daughter to the school that works best for them. We look forward to the appeals court hearing our case.”

Orrington has no public high school and, as a result, pays tuition for high school-age students to a high school of the family’s choice, whether private or public. The Maine policy, however, bars that money from going to a religious school.

The case has drawn national interest.

The families are represented by attorneys with the Institute for Justice in Mesa, Arizona, and the First Liberty Institute in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of Justice also filed a memorandum supporting the parents’ position.

On the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the state and national branches of the National Education Association, among others filed “friend of the court” briefs in support of the state ban on funds for religious schools.

Hornby praised both sides in his ruling.

“It has always been apparent that, whatever my decision, this case is destined to go to the First Circuit on appeal, maybe even to the Supreme Court,” Hornby said. “I congratulate them on their written and oral arguments in this court. I hope that the rehearsal has given them good preparation for their argument in the First Circuit (and maybe even higher). My prompt decision allows them to proceed to the next level expeditiously.”

 



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