Maine still blocks tuition assistance for religious schools
A family and school file suit after a state law changed in wake of a Supreme Court ruling
For Keith and Valori Radonis, the education of their children holds many similarities to the way they tend the land on their organic farm in rural Maine. But in a lawsuit filed last week, they said new state rules infringe on what they see as their parental responsibility to “plant, nurture, and cultivate the seed of faith in their children.”
The Radonises want to send their three children to a Roman Catholic private school by participating in a state tuition assistance program that helps families in rural areas. Under Maine’s program, parents can receive tuition assistance for their child if they live in a rural district without its own public school. But the state legislature recently doubled down on efforts to prevent parents from using that program to send children to religious schools—despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would allow just that.
In the lawsuit, the Radonis family and St. Dominic Academy argued that changes to the state Human Rights Act prevent schools like St. Dominic from carrying out their purpose of educating students in the Catholic faith. The suit said the new rules also give the Maine Human Rights Commission—not parents or schools—the final word on how the school teaches students to live out beliefs regarding marriage, gender, and family life. As a result, the lawsuit argues that faith-based schools are still being excluded from the state program to help rural families.
Nearly 5,000 students, or 2 percent of all Maine pupils, participate in the rural tuition program. That assistance may be used at a nonsectarian, accredited private school in or out of the state, or even in Canada. Parents may not, however, use the money at a religious school. In last year’s Carson v. Makin case, a U.S. Supreme Court majority rejected the ban on religious schools receiving those funds, saying it violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
The lawsuit details how, while the Supreme Court considered Carson v. Makin, the commission proposed—and Maine enacted—sweeping changes to its Human Rights Act’s provisions on educational discrimination. The changes take a three-pronged approach to keeping religious schools out of the tuition program, disqualifying schools that hold Biblical views about sex and marriage, limit admissions to students who share their beliefs, or only hire other members of the school’s religion. The lawsuit points out that the limits on Maine’s K-12 schools don’t apply to every school parents might consider under the program, nor do they follow common practices for government funding. For example, families may use the tuition money to send their children to private schools outside the state. The program also allows funding for private, postsecondary education, and religious schools are an option at that level.
“If the parents are directing the aid, the government is giving the aid to the parents on a nonsectarian basis, and then the parents get to choose how to use it. We accept this as commonplace across a host of areas,” said Adele Keim, senior counsel with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which brought the case on behalf of St. Dominic and the Radonis family. Keim said parents have used the funds at therapeutic boarding schools in western states, fine arts boarding schools, wilderness schools, and elite all-girls schools across the Northeast.
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a statement after the Carson ruling that it was “disturbing that the Supreme Court found that parents … have the right to force the public to pay for an education that is fundamentally at odds with values we hold dear.” He stated his intention to use the state Legislature as a workaround after the Supreme Court’s decision. Frey said that public education should expose children to a variety of viewpoints with an emphasis on tolerance and diversity. He also posted on Twitter about the changes to the Human Rights Act, saying that Maine “changed the guidelines” because it “anticipated the ludicrous decision from the far-right SCOTUS.”
Earlier this year, the school at the center of the Carson v. Makin case also filed a lawsuit over its ineligibility for the tuition program based on the school’s stance on marriage and sexuality. In its suit, Bangor Christian School pointed to an exception in the act for single-sex schools, noting that when the government exempts one category of persons or entities from a law, it becomes subject to strict scrutiny, the court’s highest level of review. The complaint contends that Maine does not have a compelling reason to exclude religious schools with Biblical beliefs on marriage from the program.
Keim said that Maine’s school choice program should allow families like the Radonises to pick a school based on its merits. “Parents should be able to pick the best schools for their kids, and Maine has created a program that allows them to pick the best schools for their kids,” she said. “They can’t exclude religious schools, and they can’t override parents’ judgment about that.”