Three Maine families plan to go to the nation’s top court to challenge a federal appeals court ruling that Maine state law rightfully excludes religious schools from the state’s high school tuition program.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision released Thursday reaffirms the Maine Department of Education’s ban of the use of tax dollars to pay religious school tuition in lieu of available public schools.
The circuit court rejected arguments from the families in their 2018 civil lawsuit that the ban is unconstitutional because it “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 three families, who live in Glenburn and Palermo, argued in their lawsuit that their kids should be tuitioned to attend Bangor Christian Schools and Temple Academy because denying funding to religious schools, while allowing tuition payments for other forms of private schools, was fundamentally unfair and violated the families’ constitutional rights.
But Maine’s public school system is within its rights to uphold the lawful division of church and state by requiring private schools paid with public funds to be nonsectarian. The requirement is not discriminatory, the circuit court ruled.
“The ‘nonsectarian’ requirement neither ‘punishes’ a recipient solely for being controlled by or affiliated with a religious institution nor imposes a ‘penalty’ for doing religious things,” according to the appeals court’s 63-page decision.
The court’s decision reaffirms a Maine attorney general advisory in 1980 that it is unconstitutional to use public funds to send students to schools “characterized by a pervasively religious atmosphere.”
Lawmakers enacted legislation in 1982 to prevent religious schools from receiving such tuition payments.
Attorney Tim Keller, who represented the families, said they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because the appeals court decision “allows the state of Maine to continue discriminating against families and students seeking to attend religious schools.”
“Today’s decision is disappointing for families across Maine, but we are confident the Supreme Court will ultimately put a stop to it,” he added in a statement.