By Tim Keller and Lea Patterson, Associate Counsel at First Liberty
It is time for Maine to correct a nearly 40-year-old mistake and allow parents to once again use public tuition dollars at any qualified school. As many in Maine are aware, in small towns that cannot support a public high school, local school districts provide tuition payments for students to attend the public or private secondary school of their choice. For well over a century under this system, Maine parents could choose a religious school for their children’s education.
That freedom ended in 1980 when Maine’s then-attorney general issued an opinion stating that including religious schools was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. But recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions show that opinion was incorrect and unconstitutional.
First, in 2002, the Supreme Court declared that an Ohio school choice program that let parents freely and independently select a private religious school for their children did not violate the Constitution. This result made it clear that the basis for the 1980 ruling was wrong and that Maine’s century-old system did not need to be altered.
A more recent Supreme Court opinion goes a step further to demonstrate that the current system is, in fact, unconstitutional. In a 7-2 ruling last year, the Supreme Court determined that a church school run by Trinity Lutheran in Missouri could not be excluded from a state program that provides money to make playgrounds safer by resurfacing them with rubber from used tires. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, stated that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution…and cannot stand.”