Maine’s law blatantly discriminates against parents based on religion, providing some families with tuition support for the school of their choice but denying that same support to other families. The families who filed the lawsuit qualify for Maine’s tuitioning program in all other respects, but they are excluded from participating only because they chose religious schools for their children. Such discrimination is both unfair and unconstitutional.
IJ and FLI argue not only that the U.S. Supreme Court has given the green light to include religious options in a school choice program, but that a 2017 Supreme Court decision makes it clear that barring parents from choosing religious options when providing families with school choice violates the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses.
In June, a judge determined that plaintiff parents are entitled to challenge the law in court. This finding will allow the appeal of the decision to center on whether recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, in particular, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, require overturning previous rulings by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that upheld Maine’s limitations against parents using their tuitioning funds at religious schools.
“We’re very pleased that the court recognized our clients have legal standing in the case and look forward to taking their cause to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit,” said Lea Patterson, FLI counsel. “This ruling was an important first step in the process, which we’re confident will ultimately bring more clarity to religious liberty in education.”
Portland, Maine—Today, three families represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ) and the First Liberty Institute (FLI) filed a federal lawsuit alleging that a Maine law that excludes parents from participating in the state’s school tuition program because they chose religious schools for their children, violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection of the law.
“In Maine, parents who live in towns without public high schools have the right to select the public or private school that best suits their children’s educational needs. The town then pays tuition to the school that the parents choose—unless the school is religious,” explained IJ’s lead counsel in the case, Senior Attorney Tim Keller. “By singling out religious schools, and only religious schools, for discrimination, Maine violates the U.S. Constitution.”
Maine is home to the nation’s second-oldest school choice program. Since 1873, Maine’s “tuitioning” system has paid for parents in towns too small to maintain public schools to send their children to the school of their choice—public or private, in-state or out-of-state. Until a flawed 1980 legal opinion, parents were free to exercise their independent choice to select religious schools.
By singling out religious schools, and religious schools only, for discrimination, Maine violates the religious freedom and equal protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. As the U.S. Supreme Court’s Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a 7-2 majority in last year’s Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer decision, excluding a church “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution…and cannot stand.” Armed with this recent decision, IJ and FLI’s clients intend to vindicate the principle that government programs cannot discriminate against religion.
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