On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court will hear a legal challenge from Maine that may have a national impact on school choice.
Maine allows students in cities without public high schools to put taxpayer money into covering the cost of an outside school, public or private. But the law prevents them from using this money in religious schools. The families who filed this lawsuit want this rule to be repealed.
The program has survived four previous challenges, but none made it to the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court’s conservative shift may give these plaintiffs a greater chance of success, and the case has attracted more than thirty submissions from national groups on both sides of the case.
If judges overturn the law, the immediate effect is likely to be limited. This applies to the relatively small number of Maine students who live in school administrative units that do not have public high schools. The only state with a similar law is Vermont.
But the indirect effect can be significant. Legal experts said the ruling could limit or strengthen school choice programs that seek to use public funds for religious choices.
“The findings are of national scope,” said John Madus, associate professor emeritus at the University of Maine Orono.
Maine has 260 school administrative units serving approximately 180,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. More than half do not have their own high schools, and many sign contracts or enter into agreements with other schools to provide these services. The law states that SAUs that do not have public high schools can pay outside public or private schools to accept their students, as long as these schools are not “denominational”. SAU . can Paying up to the statewide average tuition rate — $11,275 last year — and the balance is the responsibility of the parents.
More than 4,500 students attended private schools through a contract or education program during the 2017-2018 year, according to court documents. The state says nearly all of them attended one of 11 private schools known as “city academies,” such as Thornton Academy in Sacco. A spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education said Tuesday that another 208 students are receiving government funding at other private schools this year. It’s not clear how many students in Maine attend religious schools at their own expense, or how many students would do so if the court overruled the existing law and could use state tuition fees.
The Maine attorney general’s office argued that this program helps the state fulfill its obligation to provide free public education to all students. The state also said that the First Amendment does not require the government to support religious education.
“While public education is typically provided through public schools, the lack of public schools in some parts of Maine means that this is (not) always possible,” Attorney General Aaron Fry wrote in the state brief. “Therefore, few children are eligible to attend an accredited private school of their choice at public expense. This is not a voucher, scholarship, or support program. It is merely a way to provide free public education. Because Maine uses private schools as part of its public education system, Schools that promote a particular religion or offer subject matter through a religious perspective are not eligible. The education offered in such sectarian schools simply cannot be compared to general education.”
In this case, three families filed a federal lawsuit in 2018. And one is no longer involved in the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are represented by the Institute for Justice, a national law firm that handles religious freedom and school choice issues. The same group has participated in previous challenges to Maine law.
They decided to try again in light of a 2017 Supreme Court decision. In this case, Missouri barred a church from participating in a government program that reimburses the cost of treating playground surfaces with rubber. The court ruled that religious organizations could not be excluded from state programs if they had secular intentions, and Missouri is against this church on the basis of its religious status only.
Last year, while Maine’s lawsuit was pending, the Supreme Court issued another opinion likely to be important to arguments on Wednesday. The court considered a Montana scholarship program that provides tax credits for donations to private grant organizations. When the state said these grants could not be used in religious schools, the parents filed a lawsuit. The judges eventually said that the state could not exclude religious schools.
The plaintiffs in Maine argued that state law violated their constitutional right to practice their religion.
“Maine’s sectarian exclusion discriminates against families who qualify for the educational assistance program and believe that religious education is the best option for their children,” their attorneys wrote in the memo. “Exclusion forces these families to choose between the public good they are entitled to and their right to send their children to a religious school.”
David and Amy Carson live in Glenburn and met while they were students at Bangor Christian Schools. David Carson is a general contractor, and Amy Carson helps run the business. When it was time for their only daughter to start kindergarten, they enrolled her in Bangor Christian Schools as well. Their city does not have a public high school, so they could use the education program to send their daughter to John Pabst Memorial High School in Bangor or another accredited school. But they chose to keep it in Bangor Christian schools. Olivia Carson, now 19, graduated this year and is a business student at Husson University.
Amy Carson said her daughter excelled in a small twenty-class class, and that the family appreciated the Bible lessons that were part of the school routine. Because their daughter has graduated, the family will not be eligible for a tuition refund if the Supreme Court overturns the law. But Amy Carson said the family signed up to the lawsuit anyway because they know there are other families who can’t afford the same choices. She estimated that they spent more than $20,000 on tuition over the four years of high school.
“It was really cool to get the benefit when she was in high school,” said Amy Carson, 45. “But we’re looking at all the other families who would benefit from it, whether it’s someone down the road from me or in another town.”
Maddus, associate professor emeritus at UMaine, conducted research on the state program in the 1980s and 1990s, and his writings are cited in the memoirs in this case. If the court overturns the law, he said, some families may enroll their children in religious schools for the first time or transfer to SAU schools who will then be required to pay religious school tuition fees.
“It certainly could have some ramifications in Maine in terms of increasing the number of students enrolled through city education,” Maddus said.
Arif Banjo, an administrative attorney at the Institute of Justice, said several states have expanded school selection programs in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Montana case. His organization represents these plaintiffs.
“You have a lot of families waiting for more educational options,” he said.
The principal of Bangor Christian Schools said on Tuesday she would not comment on the case. The principal of another school named in the suit, Temple Academy in Waterville, did not send a letter on Tuesday. The state said these two schools Discriminates against teachers and students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, so they will have to change those policies or refuse public funds even if a Supreme Court ruling means religious schools must be included in the education program.
Kimberly Weil, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School, said she was concerned that such discriminatory policies could be endorsed by a court. Repeal Maine Law. She said the ruling could show how much the former conservative majority will alter the separation of church and state.
“I think Maine was chosen as a test balloon to try to constitutionalize discrimination on the basis of other characteristics as a matter of the free exercise of religion,” Will said.
Both the US District Court of Maine and the First US District Court of Appeals in Boston found the Maine education program to be constitutional. More than two years ago, the case’s first ruling foreshadowed its national significance.
US District Court Judge Dr. parties) on their written and oral arguments in this Court. I hope the rehearsal has given them a good preparation for the first (and possibly higher) circuit.”
The oral arguments in Carson v. McCain will begin at 10 a.m. Wednesday and will be streamed live on the Supreme Court’s website. A decision is not expected until next year.
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