Tom Waddell: Religious school funding decision puts Maine in a bind

What happens when an irresistible force meets a stationary object? Maine will find out in the next school year.

A lot has changed since I wrote about publicly funded Christian education in January. The Supreme Court’s decision in Casey v. Makin nearly forced Maine to pay for Christian education, and private Christian schools claim their teachers are ministers.

State-funded religion violates the Maine Constitution and the United States Constitution, and teachers are not considered ministers under the Ministerial Exception Act.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor got it right when she commented on another case that also applies to Casey v. makin. The Supreme Court’s agenda to transform America into a Christian nation was revealed when it overturned Roe v. Wade. Judge Sotomayor bluntly questioned whether the court will “survive the stench” that Roe’s nullification “creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are nothing but political acts.” Will the nation survive the stench of state-funded Christian education?

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey described the state’s policy: “An instruction that inculcates, inculcates, imbues a religious outlook through its materials, through its teachings, prescribing that there is a religion beyond above others and that there are certain ways in the world that are compatible with that religion…contradicts a public education.

There is, however, a caveat in the SCOTUS Edict. The Supreme Court cannot force Maine to pay for Christian education. But if Maine chooses to pay for secular private education, the Supreme Court can require the state to fund private Christian education as well. Maine can avoid paying religious school tuition by no longer subsidizing private schools.

Either decision Maine makes on this issue will put the state in a legal bind. If the state chooses to stop subsidizing secular private schools, a backlash can be expected from parents with children in these schools. The continuation of the policy of paying tuition fees in private schools now obliges the state to fund private Christian education as well. By funding Christian education, Maine will condone all anti-LGBT teachings in Christian schools and put Maine in direct conflict with the policies of its own Human Rights Commission.

Fortunately, Maine requires the private schools it funds ($56 million a year) to follow public school protocols. Private Christian schools were exempt until SCOTUS forced Maine to fund religious schools. Now, Maine-funded private Christian schools will have to follow public school protocols. These private religious schools will no longer be able to ignore the policies of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

Some private religious schools said they would not accept Maine funds if they had to follow the policies of the Maine Human Rights Commission. My concern is that some private Christian schools will accept public funds and disobey Maine’s human rights laws, thereby intentionally creating a situation where Maine will sue them.

If that happens and the case ultimately goes to the Supreme Court, there is no doubt that the court will rule in favor of the private Christian school.

One dubious defense that Christian schools can use is the legal doctrine known as the Ministerial Exception to justify discrimination against all religious school workers. Religious employers and conservative Christian legal groups are urging courts to adopt an ever-broader interpretation of the ministerial exception, which was intended to ensure that places of worship were free to choose their clergy. However, these Christian nationalists want the ministerial exception to be expanded to include the ability to terminate employees without cause; an action that will deprive that employee of his or her employment rights.

Concrete example. Gregg Tucker, a teacher at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colorado, was fired for hosting an anti-racism symposium for students. Some parents have complained and threatened to withdraw their children (and their tuition) from school.

Instead of championing Tucker’s anti-racism message, the school fired him. When the teacher challenged this violation of his civil rights in court, the school said that Tucker was a minister (false) and therefore could not be held responsible for discriminating against him (false again).

What if Maine subsidizes a private Christian school that orders its “ministers” to ignore Maine’s human rights laws and a teacher refuses to break the law? Should this school have the right to fire this teacher? I do not think so.

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He welcomes comments on [email protected] and ffrfmaine.org.


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