U.S. Supreme Court to hear Maine religious school tuition case

The U.S. Supreme Court will challenge a Maine law that prohibits students from using public funding for tuition at religious schools.

Local school administrative units that do not have their own high schools may pay a certain amount of tuition for students to attend outside public or private schools, but Maine law does not allow this money to be used. in religious schools. Three families sued the state last year to get their children’s tuition reimbursed to attend Bangor Christian School in Bangor and Temple Academy in Waterville.

Angela and Troy Nelson, left, of Palermo, want to use state tuition reimbursement to send their children, Royce “RJ” Nelson and Alicia Nelson, to a religious academy. This photo was taken when they and two other families filed a lawsuit in 2018. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The plaintiffs say the law violates their First Amendment protections for religious freedom, while the state says public money cannot be used for religious instruction. The families are represented by the Institute for Justice, a national law firm that handles cases on religious freedom and school choice, and they’ve been targeting the nation’s highest court since filing their lawsuit. in 2018.

Michael Bindas, the group’s lead attorney, said the Supreme Court could use the case to tell states they can’t exclude religious options from school choice programs.

“By excluding religion — and only religion — from its tuition assistance program, Maine violates the U.S. Constitution,” Bindas said in a press release. “The state categorically prohibits parents from choosing schools that provide religious education. It is unconstitutional. »

This law has survived at least four legal challenges. The Supreme Court has never granted a petition for review before. The Institute for Justice was also implicated in two such cases, in 1997 and 2002, losing both times. In that case, the United States District Court of Maine and the Boston 1st Circuit Court of Appeals both found the tuition program to be constitutional. The plaintiffs then appealed to the Supreme Court, which announced Friday that it would take up the case during its next term.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said his office will defend the law as it has in the past, and he is confident the Supreme Court will find it constitutional.

“Religious schools are excluded because the education they provide is not equivalent to public education,” he said in a statement. “Religious schools can promote and advance their own religion to the exclusion of all others, discriminate against both the teachers they employ and the students they admit, and teach religious views contrary to what is taught in public schools. Parents are free to send their children to such schools if they wish, but not with public funds.

The court, which now has a conservative majority, has issued two key religious freedom opinions in recent years that could impact this one.

In one case, Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri was barred from participating in a state program that reimburses the cost of rubberizing playground surfaces. In 2017, the nation’s highest court ruled that religious organizations cannot be excluded from state programs if they have a secular intent.

This opinion prompted the Institute of Justice to try again in Maine. But District Judge D. Brock Hornby said the Supreme Court did not overturn case law barring public funds from going to religious education. He also cited Maine’s human rights law, which prohibits religious groups from receiving public money if they maintain a hiring policy that discriminates against LGBTQ people. Bangor Christian and Temple Academy do, according to court documents.

Last year, the Supreme Court reviewed a scholarship program in Montana that offered dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to private scholarship organizations. These scholarships could be used in private schools, including religious ones. The judges ultimately ruled that the program was constitutional. They said states don’t have to subsidize private education, but if they do, they can’t exclude religious schools just because they’re religious. This decision did not sway the 1st Circuit, which upheld Maine’s tuition program.

The Maine case has drawn the attention of national groups on both sides of the issue, as well as the Trump administration. Some have also filed briefs asking the Supreme Court to take up the case.

“The framers of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause designed it to protect not only the right to be religious in a metaphysical sense, but also the practical right to participate in religious activity, and that includes a program and a religious environment,” said John Bursch, the senior attorney and vice president of appeals advocacy at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization that filed such a brief on behalf of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Freedom.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has also followed this case closely since its inception and sided with the state.

“Parents have an important constitutional right to direct the education of their children, but that is not the same as having the right to force state taxpayers to fund religion,” Zachary Heiden said. , legal director of the ACLU of Maine.

Maine has 260 school administrative units serving nearly 180,000 K-12 students. More than half do not have their own secondary schools, but many sign contracts or enter into agreements with other schools to provide these services. Partly because each community makes its own arrangements, it is unclear how many students are covered by the tuition program.

The plaintiffs who took the case to the Supreme Court are David and Amy Carson of Glenburn, and Troy and Angela Nelson of Palermo. Neither city has its own high school. A third family was part of the original lawsuit, but their daughter has since graduated from high school and is no longer eligible for the tuition program, so she is not part of this appeal.

Court documents show the Carsons send their daughter to Bangor Christian Academy, but they pay her fees out of pocket because the school is not eligible for the tuition program. The Nelsons send their children to Erskine Academy, a secular private school eligible for the tuition program, but prefer to enroll them in Temple Academy, a religious school they cannot afford without reimbursement.

The court has not yet set a date for oral arguments, but they will likely take place in late fall or early winter.

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