FORT KENT, Maine — Fort Kent’s school system in northernmost Aroostook County is debating whether to allow students to continue attending Catholic religion classes during regular public school hours after some board members questioned the practice.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grades who have parental permission attend the 45-minute weekly sessions, which take place during school hours at the St. Louis Parish Faith Formation Center next to the school. Those who don’t attend stay in the school classrooms, but no new material is taught until the religion class students return.

Fort Kent is predominantly a Catholic Acadian French community on the Canadian border, and allowing students from public school to attend faith formation classes — instruction on the Catholic faith that leads to first communion in the church — is a longtime tradition. At a time when Maine already is facing a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court over its ban on funding students who attend religion-based schools, this latest discussion highlights the continued debate about the separation of church and state.

Currently, 203 out of 356, or 57 percent, of the Fort Kent elementary students go to the faith formation classes.

“When students are dismissed for Faith Formation lessons, the other students who remain behind cannot receive new learning experiences since their classmates are gone,” Superintendent Ben Sirois said. “With the pandemic highlighting the need to maximize learning opportunities, the [SAD 27] board was simply inquiring if there was another way to support the Faith Formation and maximize learning.”

The district does not pay for the faith formation classes, which are authorized under Maine law. Public schools may allow for up to one hour per week as long as it results in no additional costs to the local school unit, Sirois said.  

The parish staffs the classes held at the Faith Formation Center. If the lessons moved to an after-school program, a public school classroom could be used at no cost to the parish or the district, and students could use the late bus already in place for other programs, Sirois said.

A brick faith formation center in Fort Kent
The St. Louis Parish Faith Formation Center in Fort Kent is where some elementary school students go to learn about Catholicism during school hours. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

Claire Nichols still recalls the feeling of isolation she felt for not attending Catholic faith formation lessons like the majority of her classmates did when she attended Eagle Lake Elementary School in the St. John Valley decades ago.

“Because I was brought up Protestant, my family didn’t feel comfortable having me attend as it was targeted to Catholicism. I always felt left out, and sometimes had to sit by the office because there was no place for me,” she said.

Although Eagle Lake Elementary School has since closed, the remaining elementary school in the SAD 27 district, Fort Kent Elementary School, still offers Catholic faith formation classes.

Nichols’ own children do not attend the classes, but rather an after-school program called the Good News Club, which she said is of a different sect of Christianity than the Catholic faith.

“I firmly believe in supporting all religions in the same way and I’m not sure that release time during the school day provides the same treatment across the board,” Nichols said.

Erica Murphy of Fort Kent said her two grown sons, now 18 and 20 years old, did not attend the faith formation program. She said that based on her experience, the students who do not attend the program are often left with feelings they have done something wrong by not attending.

“I do not, under any circumstance, believe that religious education during public school time makes any kind of sense, unless world religion is being taught to children, not just one form of religious beliefs,” Murphy said. “If parents believe their children would benefit from Catholic religious education, then classes could and should be organized after school or in the evenings.”

Jill Soucie of Winterville, mother of a 6 year-old Fort Kent student, wants the faith formation classes to continue during the school day. Winterville is about a 30-minute drive from the elementary school.

“After school is too late for religion class for him because he’s too tired. We can’t travel him to Fort Kent to participate so without release time he will miss out on spiritual education,” she said. “Grayson is learning about the basics of the Catholic faith but also about goodness and sharing and being kind. It’s an additional piece of his education.”

Recognizing that the community is predominantly a Catholic Acadian community, she said she didn’t want to see tradition voted out because of a few people who feel God isn’t part of education.

“In this time of such hate and separation, why not keep all the kids together and educate them on different types of religions, different kinds of people and welcoming everyone,” Murphy said.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland could not be reached for comment.

The SAD 27 school board will discuss on Monday whether to continue with the religious release program, or move the faith formation classes to after-school hours.