Around New England

Maine Court: No Public Funding For Religious Schools. Maybe.

June 28, 2019

 Three families living in Maine school districts that do not provide any in-district secondary education have so far lost their battle to have the state pay for their children’s education at private religious schools. But the battle might not be over, or so suggested the judge adjudicating the case this week.

The three families sued the state – which is mandated to provide an equal education for its student-age population – for failing to reimburse them for tuition paid at Bangor Christian School in Bangor and Temple Academy in Waterville, the Portland Press Herald (PPH) reports. Maine families living in districts without high schools who send their children to private, non-religious schools are entitled to state subsidies and reimbursements. Maine state law excludes religious schools from receiving state aid.

The PPH reports that US District Judge D. Brock Hornby upheld state laws banning the use of state funds for religion-based education, but the ruling did not address “a definitive opinion about a central argument in the lawsuit.”

That argument, Hornby suggested, would likely be decided by higher courts within the US federal court system.

“It has always been apparent that, whatever my decision, this case is destined to go to the First Circuit on appeal, maybe even to the Supreme Court,” Hornby said.

The PPH further reports that Hornby praised both the plaintiffs’ and state’s attorneys for the presentation of their arguments before the bench.

“I hope that the rehearsal has given them good preparation for the First District (and maybe even higher),” he wrote in his decision and quoted by the PPH.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they immediately intend to file an appeal with the First Circuit of Appeals in Boston.

“Today’s decision is disappointing but not unexpected,” said attorney Tim Keller, representing the plaintiffs. “District judges are generally required to uphold previous rulings from higher courts and we expected that, no matter the decision, this important case was going to be appealed. We are grateful that Judge Hornby moved quickly to issue a ruling just two days after the hearing. This fight against religious discrimination is headed to the First Circuit and then possibly to the Supreme Court.”

In his decision, Hornby also noted that, besides Maine state law banning the disbursement of funds to religious schools, the plaintiffs have another legal hurdle to get over, namely, the Maine Human Rights Act, which includes LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws. Those laws preclude public funding of any religious institution that “discriminates” against the hiring of gay, lesbian or transgender people. The religious schools in question do not hire people who are gay or transgendered, the PPH reports.

In remarks in favor of Hornby’s decision to reject the plaintiffs’ argument, the legal director of the ACLU of Maine, Zachary Heiden, said that it is “not the state’s job to teach children how to pray or practice religion, but it is the state’s job to avoid funding entities that promote discrimination,” the PPH reports.

The plaintiffs’ suit, heard on Monday, was filed in August 2018.




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