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Maine ban on tuition payments to religious schools is upheld

October 30, 2020 GMT

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from a high school tuition voucher program, upholding the law after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Montana case seemed to open the door to more public funding for parochial schools.

The parents challenging the law and their attorneys vowed to appeal Thursday’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservative justices hold six of the nine seats after Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation.

The appeals court decision “is disappointing for families across Maine, but we are confident the Supreme Court will ultimately put a stop to it,” said Tim Keller, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice.

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The Maine Department of Education currently allows families who reside in towns without public high schools to receive tuition to attend a public or private school, as long as it’s not a religious school.

Three families in Orrington, Glenburn and Palermo sued the state in 2018 to get that tuition reimbursement for their children at Bangor Christian School and Temple Academy in Waterville.

Families who sued over Maine’s law cited a recent Supreme Court decision in a Montana dispute over a scholarship program for private K-12 education. The 5-4 ruling preserved a program that offered indirect tuition assistance through tax credits rather than direct state aid to religious schools.

But the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Maine’s law once again, concluding the state requirement of a free secular education does not violate anyone’s constitutional rights, Justice David Barron wrote.

“There is no question that Maine may ensure that such a public education is a secular one, just as there is no question that the Free Exercise Clause ensures that Mainers, like all Americans, are free to opt for a religious education for their children if they wish,” he wrote.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said the panel recognized that the state created a narrowly tailored tuition program aimed at replicating the education that a student would receive at a public school.

Therefore, the state is not discriminating against schools that provide religious instruction; it is simply declining to pay for religious instruction that would be unavailable in a public school, he said.

The decision stands in contrast to guidance provided by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in a Vermont case after the Supreme Court decision.

The appeals court granted an injunction to stop Vermont from excluding some high school students who attend religious schools from taking college classes through a dual enrollment program until an appeal is decided.

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Associated Press writer Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed to this story.