Religious schools may face another hurdle to state tuition

Jun 25, 2022, 6:48 AM | Updated: 9:21 am

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Religious schools got what they wanted when the Supreme Court allowed them to participate in a state tuition program.

But the state attorney general said the ruling will be for naught unless the schools are willing to abide by the same antidiscrimination law as other private schools that participate in the program.

An attorney for the families criticized the “knee-jerk” comments, and the leader of a religious group predicted further litigation.

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition for private education in towns that don’t have public schools. But religious schools didn’t have long to savor their victory before learning of a new hurdle.

Attorney General Aaron Frey said both Christian schools involved in the lawsuit have policies that discriminate against students and staff on a basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, preventing their participation in the tuition program despite the hard-fought litigation.

“The education provided by the schools at issue here is inimical to a public education. They promote a single religion to the exclusion of all others, refuse to admit gay and transgender children, and openly discriminate in hiring teachers and staff,” he said in a statement.

There was no immediate comment from two schools, Temple Academy in Waterville or Bangor Christian Schools.

Michael Bindas, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, said the attorney general isn’t paying close attention to the Supreme Court’s commitment to religious liberty in recent years.

“It was an erroneous opinion of the Maine attorney general that embroiled the state in five lawsuits spanning three decades and that culminated in the Supreme Court’s ruling against the state,” Bindas said Thursday in a statement. “The current attorney general seems to not have learned any lessons from that experience.”

If the state truly intends to use the state law to create another obstacle, then more litigation will be inevitable, said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.

The original lawsuit by three families seeking reimbursements to attend Christian schools dates to 2018, but it goes back even further.

The state always sought to maintain a solid line between church and state by reimbursing for private schools — but not religious schools. The goal was to give rural students without a public high school an education that’s similar to what public school students get.

In Maine, 29 private schools participate in the program, enrolling 4,526 students, officials said. Private schools that meet the state’s criteria can get about $12,000 in taxpayer funding per student.

The most immediate effect of the court’s ruling beyond Maine probably will be in nearby Vermont, which has a similar program.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision could propel school choice pushes in some of the 18 states that have not directed taxpayer money to private, religious education. It was seen as an affirmation for states that already have voucher programs open to religious schools.

But all schools receiving state tuition must abide by the Maine Human Right Act, which bans discriminating against someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability, Frey said.

The Legislature in the last session strengthened the law that clarified the scope of the Maine Human Rights Act in education. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill into law last year.

The updated law, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman, the first openly gay African American to serve in both chambers of the Legislature, bans discrimination in education on the basis of “sex, sexual orientation or gender identity,” among other things.

The American Association of Christian Schools, meanwhile, brushed aside concerns of discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

“We don’t look at it as discrimination at all. We have a set of principles and beliefs that we believe are conducive to prosperity, to the good life, so to speak, and we partner with parents who share that vision,” said Jamison Coppola, spokesperson for the association.

The lead plaintiffs, Dave and Amy Carson, were students of Conley when he used to be headmaster at Bangor Christian Schools.

Conley said the attorney general “laid down the gauntlet” for religious schools, but he said legal precedent favors the schools.

Dave Carson, for his part, said his family won’t benefit from the ruling because his daughter is already a junior at Husson University. But he said he doesn’t think it’s right for the state to try to put up roadblocks.

“As long as it’s an accredited school, students should be able to go wherever they want to,” he said. “You’re teaching the basics. If you want to have a Bible class, too, then that’s a parent’s choice, not someone down in Augusta.”

Bindas said the attorney general should undertake a “sober reflection” of how best to balance the rights of parents in the litigation versus the state’s anti-discrimination interests.

“It is possible to develop policies that respect the concerns of both advocates for LGBTQ rights and advocates for religious liberty, but only if elected officials are genuinely committed to that task,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Collin Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.

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Follow David Sharp on Twitter at https://twitter.com/David_Sharp_AP

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Religious schools may face another hurdle to state tuition