A federal appeals court in Boston took up the case of three Maine families who are challenging a long-standing state law prohibiting public tuition payments to religious schools.
The 1981 statute says that school districts without high schools can pay tuition to send students to surrounding public or private schools, but not to religious schools. A federal court judge ruled last year that the law did not violate the First Amendment, but the families appealed.
But Tim Keller, a senior attorney with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice which is representing the families, said a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a Missouri school run by a church could not be denied taxpayer-funded grants for playgrounds available to nonprofits under a state program should cast doubt on Maine’s law.
“We believe that same sort of religion-based discrimination violates our parents’ rights, and has to be struck down under the free exercise clause of the constitution,” Keller said.
Groups including the ACLU and National School Boards Association have submitted briefs arguing that the Maine law is constitutional. Zach Heiden is the legal director at the ACLU of Maine.
“People have the right to send their kids to whatever school they want,” Heiden said. “But that does not obligate the state to pay for those schools and pay for religious education.”
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in October supporting the parents in their appeal.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public