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Maine school choice debate heads to Supreme Court

Three families who want to take advantage of public tuition fees from Maine’s school choice program to send their children to religious schools The US Supreme Court will hear their case on December 8.

Carson v. McCain is about a Maine law that allows parents who live in cities without public schools to receive public lessons to send their students to a public or private school of their choice—as long as they don’t choose a religious school.

The Justice Institute, a libertarian, non-profit public interest law firm, represents families living in Orrington, Glenburn, and Palermo. The Republic newspaper sought an interview with the Palermo family, the Nelson family, but they refused. All three municipalities are school towns where the local school district offers high school classes for students to attend public or private high schools of their choice.

In 2018, the parents filed a complaint in US District Court in Maine alleging that the school choice program violated First Amendment rights, including the freedom to exercise religion.

The district court ruled against the parents. When the families took their case to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit last year, the court confirmed the lower court’s ruling. But the families appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and on July 2, the Supreme Court accepted the case.

While the families appealed their case, the Supreme Court ruled in a similar case, overturning the restrictions on Montana’s school choice program under the Free Practice Clause of the First Amendment.

In Espinosa v. Montana, the court ruled that schools could not be prevented from participating in the government grant program merely because of religious affiliation, because it would violate parents’ right to choose the best education for their children.

According to Arif Banjo, a lawyer involved with the Institute for Justice, which represents families, once parents are given the right to choose, they cannot be excluded if they make a religious choice, just because it is sectarian. “This is where you get involved in religious discrimination,” he said.

“Once you hand the baton to the parents, and you don’t favor or hate religion, you leave it to the parents only, it’s not a violation of the Articles of Incorporation (which prohibits the creation of a state religion by Congress),” Banjo added.

The way Maine determines whether parental choice of schools is permissible, he said, is to engage in an intrusive review of the school.

“The government cannot be in the business of making these decisions, letting government bureaucrats decide whether or not schools are religious, and interfering with various aspects of the school.”

Banjo said Maine has one of the oldest educational programs in the country, dating back to 1873. Parents were allowed to choose a school for their children, whether public, private, or denominational, for more than a century until 1980, when the state excluded religious schools. Schools because of the incorporation requirement.

In a statement prepared for the magazine, Maine Attorney General Aaron M. Frey said, “Faith schools have been excluded because the education they provide is not equivalent to public education. Religious schools can promote their religion and exclude all others, and discriminate in both the teachers they hire and the students they accept, It teaches religious views hostile to what is taught in public schools.

Parents are free to send their children to such schools if they choose, but not in public dollars. I am confident that the Supreme Court will recognize that there is nothing in the Constitution that obligates the State of Maine to include religious schools in its public education system.”

Amy Carson and her husband, Dave, live in Glenburn, and are among the three groups of parents who are appealing to the Supreme Court over Maine’s School Choice Education Program. She said she did not expect the case to live up to what it did, with judges having to go through many cases in their records.

“It’s impressive to have one of the issues they decided to look at,” she said. With oral arguments set for December 8, Carson said her husband and daughter Olivia were heading to Washington, D.C. to try to sit in the proceedings, but because of the pandemic, the court has imposed restrictions on who enters the building.

Since the 1980s, Carson said, the state has excluded religion-based schools from the list of schools to choose from, and I think that’s because people have changed their spending habits. “Do you remember the 1970s and 1980s the energy and fuel crisis?” She said. “I think people just wanted to keep their money to themselves and didn’t want to share it anymore.”

Carson’s daughter attended Bangor Christian School, where she graduated last June. She said the annual tuition fee for attending religious school is lower than what public schools charge the city. “It’s a little lower, so there’s no extra charge.”

The whole issue, Carson said, is about choosing a family to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs. “Some people send their kids to school for soccer, soccer, basketball and baseball,” she said. “This religion-based education meets all educational requirements set by the federal and state government.

“It actually meets it and exceeds it,” Carson said. “We are both really grateful that this has come so far. Now we will wait and see how it goes.”

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