Parents in Maine who want to use school choice funds to send their children to religious schools aren't being allowed to participate in the state's school tuition program.
Since 1873, Maine has paid for parents in small towns to send their children to the school of their choice, regardless if that school is public or private. However, that option is simply not available for students who want to attend religious schools.
Attorneys representing three such families filed a federal lawsuit on their behalf.
The lawsuit claims current state law excluding these parents and children is a violation of the Constitution's "guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection of the law."
The attorneys refer to last year's Supreme Court ruling on Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, in which the justices ruled it was unconstitutional to exclude a church "from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church."
"Maine offers school choice to everyone except those who choose religious schools," said Lea Patterson, associate counsel with FLI. "Under the U.S. Constitution, that's religious discrimination, and we intend to restore our clients' religious liberty."
The three plaintiff families live in Orrington, Glenburn and Palermo. All have been excluded from the punlic benefits because they want to send their children to religious schools.
"We feel discriminated against because of our religious convictions," said Alan and Judy Gillis of Orrington, who send their daughter to Bangor Christian Schools at their own expense. "If our neighbors have the freedom to choose a private school and receive tuition from our town, why are we denied this same benefit just because we desire a religious education for our daughter?"
IJ previously brought two similar lawsuits in state court. The first was Bagley v. Town of Raymond in 1997, and Anderson v. Town of Durham in 2002. In both cases, the Maine Supreme Court upheld the law.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has said that IJ's clients were right in the first two state cases, and our clients are unquestionably right in this new federal case: The Constitution does not allow discrimination against parents who choose religious schools for their children," Keller said.