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Court rejects challenge to Maine law promoting religious discrimination

Ruling keeps religious schools under a “poison pill” regulation

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Court rejects challenge to Maine law promoting religious discrimination

Last Tuesday, a U.S. District Court in Maine upheld a state law that prohibits religious schools from receiving state tuition assistance. The denial means that some schools will be unable to receive state funding for students, keeping some families from accessing a benefit that others have, said Lea Patterson, senior counsel with First Liberty Institute.

The injunction stems from a series of back-and-forth legal exchanges over Maine’s tuition program. The program enables school districts that do not have their own high schools to pay tuition for local students to attend either a private high school or a public high school in another district.

Crosspoint Church’s Bangor Christian School (BCS) in Bangor, Maine, participated in the program from its founding in 1970 until 1981, when the state amended the law to require that participating schools be nonsectarian.

Three families, two of whose children attend BCS, sued the Maine Department of Education in 2018, claiming the state’s sectarian exclusion violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the families in Carson v. Makin, ruling that Maine could not exclude religious schools from the program.

However, Maine legislators maneuvered around the ruling by amending a state law to add a new requirement for participating schools to receive tuition assistance. The amendment required schools to agree to not refuse to hire or admit a person on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. This regulation effectively ensured BCS was ineligible for the program because of the school’s statement on marriage and sexuality.

BCS filed a lawsuit against the state’s education department, stating this “poison pill” law violated constitutional rights in the free exercise of religion and targeted the school. The school also asked the court to block the law from taking effect until the suit is resolved. Now, a U.S. District Court has denied relief to the parents.

Because the amended law was “neutral, generally applicable, and rationally related to a legitimate government interest,” it did not violate the free exercise clause, wrote District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. in the order to deny.

While BCS argued that the law was written to circumvent the Supreme Court’s ruling, Woodcock said that even if this is the case, the law itself is neutral.

Additionally, BCS said that the law engaged in religious discrimination and targeted BCS, citing comments made by Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey in a 2022 news release. Frey said that BCS’ education was “inimical to a public education” and that the Supreme Court’s ruling promoted intolerance and bigotry.

“[These schools] promote a single religion to the exclusion of all others, refuse to admit gay and transgender children, and openly discriminate in hiring teachers and staff,” Frey said.

Woodcock disagreed with BCS’ argument that the law and Frey targeted BCS. While the judge noted that Frey’s remarks add credence to the school’s argument, he said that Frey was not a member of the Maine Legislature when it enacted the law. He added there wasn’t “significant evidence” to show that either the law or Frey’s objective was “to impede or constrain religion.”

First Liberty Attorney Patterson said the group respectfully disagrees. “We think that when the attorney general, in his press release about Carson, specifically went through our client’s religious beliefs and criticized them, that… is excellent evidence of targeting,” she said.

Woodcock also said that while he recognized the hardship the law places on BCS, those hardships don’t “outweigh the potential hardship the state would face from being unable to fully enforce its educational antidiscrimination laws.”

The judge’s order at least recognized that the suit raised important questions, Patterson said. But she thinks later updates to the law that affect single-sex schools contributed to his decision to deny the preliminary injunction.

BCS’s next steps in the case will be to either appeal the denial or wait until the suit goes to discovery and trial, Patterson said.

Just a few states over, a school in Vermont has also struggled to receive state tuition payments due to religious beliefs. Last November, Mid Vermont Christian School sued multiple state agencies for religious discrimination after being banned from interscholastic sports in the state and denied tuition reimbursements for students. The case is still pending, with a hearing on motions set for April 19.

Ultimately, tuition assistance programs are designed to provide parents and children with more educational opportunities, Patterson said. The suit seeks to ensure religious parents have access to these benefits.

“Religious organizations and religious parents should not be penalized because they choose to send their children to religious options,” Patterson said. “I would just always encourage parents that it’s worth fighting for those educational options for their children and they should not have to face religious discrimination when they select a school.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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