BOSTON – A federal appeals court will hear arguments today in a case regarding Maine’s school tuition payment program. Civil rights and religious organizations are urging the appeals court to uphold a lower court ruling that Maine is not required to fund religious education for residents of districts with no public high school.
“Maine residents should never be forced to support religious education or discrimination,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Diverting public funds to those uses would violate the religious freedom of taxpayers, parents, and students.”
“Courts have now ruled four times that Maine’s decision to keep religious training out of the taxpayer-funded tuition program is constitutional,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director at the ACLU of Maine. “It would be devastating to religious freedom to reverse course now.”
The plaintiffs in the case, Carson v. Makin, have demanded that Maine pay for tuition at Bangor Christian School in Bangor and Temple Academy in Waterville. Both schools would use the taxpayer-funded tuition to teach students religious doctrine and train them in religious rites and observances.
Both schools also discriminate in admissions and employment against non-Christians and LGBTQ people. For example, Temple Academy not only prohibits gay and lesbian students but also refuses to admit students with gay or lesbian parents. And students who come out as LGBTQ at Bangor Christian must renounce their sexual orientation or gender identity after counseling or be expelled.
In addition, teachers at both schools must be born-again Christians “who know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.” And Temple Academy requires teachers to sign an employment agreement stating that “God recognize[s] homosexuals and other deviants as perverted.”
Several civil rights and religious organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. The brief argues that Maine, which pays private school tuition for students who live in a district with no high school, should not be compelled to finance tuition at religious schools where taxpayer funds will be used to support religious instruction and discrimination based on religion, LGBTQ status, and other protected characteristics.
This marks the third time the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit will hear a challenge to Maine’s law prohibiting the use of tuition funds for religious education. The court has twice upheld the program, as has the Maine Supreme Court. In June, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine again determined that Maine’s decision not to fund religious education was in keeping with the state’s historical concerns regarding taxpayer funding of religion and discrimination and that the limitation was permissible under the U.S. Constitution.
Signers to the amicus brief include the ACLU, ACLU of Maine, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, ADL (Anti-Defamation League), American Atheists, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hindu American Foundation, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Men of Reform Judaism, National Council of Jewish Women, People for the American Way Foundation, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Union for Reform Judaism, Women of Reform Judaism, and Maine taxpayers Susan Marcus, James Torbert and Theta Torbert.
The amicus brief can be found here: https://www.au.org/media/carson-v-makin-amicus-brief-11619.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.