High court upholds Maine tuition law


Maine towns won’t be paying for students to attend religious schools anytime soon.

Maine’s highest court has upheld a 25-year-old state law that prohibits towns from paying for students to attend religious schools, even if those towns have no schools of their own and routinely pay for students to attend other private schools.

The ruling affects thousands of people. About 6,700 Maine students receive public money to attend schools outside their towns, not including students who need special education. In Maine, 171 school systems have no high school, according to the Maine Department of Education.

The U.S. Supreme Court is now the only recourse left for the eight area families who brought the lawsuit. They have 90 days to decide whether to take the case that far.

“It’s a long shot,” said Dick Komer, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based law firm that filed the original lawsuit more than three years ago.

At issue is a state law that prevents towns from paying for religious school tuition, even if those towns pay for students to attend their choice of public and private schools. Eight families from Minot, Durham and Raymond – towns that have no high schools and pay for students to attend Hebron Academy, Waynflete in Portland and other schools – claim the law violates their constitutional right to free exercise of religion.

But the state has argued that it doesn’t have to and doesn’t want to pay for kids to attend religious schools. In part, it fears becoming entangled in religious education.

In a 6-1 ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said Wednesday the state was right. If the law was changed, the justices said, the state might clash with religious schools over curriculum, anti-discrimination requirements and religious practices.

“These conflicts could result in significant entanglement of state education officials in religious matters,” the court ruling said.

The court also said Maine law did not violate the families’ constitutional rights. They are allowed to choose religious schools, the justices said, Maine just doesn’t have to pay for it.

“None of the parties in this case has asserted that attendance at public or secular private schools is proscribed by their faith, or that they are being punished for engaging in conduct mandated by their faith, or that the statute places any pressure on them to modify their beliefs,” the ruling stated.

Justice Robert Clifford disagreed. Towns shouldn’t be able to exclude religious schools if they pay for other private schools, he said.

“In my view, that is blatant discrimination that reflects not a neutrality toward religion, but rather an animus against religion,” he wrote in a dissenting opinion.

State officials were pleased by the majority ruling.

“We’re hoping the ruling puts this issue to rest,” said Chuck Dow, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office.

But at the Institute for Justice, Komer said he was “sad” and “frustrated.” He will talk with the families and decide whether to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Jill Guay, a Minot mother of two, was one of the parents who helped bring the suit. Her family wanted help paying for Catholic schools for her daughters, one of whom has since graduated from St. Dominic Regional High School in Auburn.

While not totally surprised by the ruling – a lower court made the same decision in 2004 – she was disappointed.

“We were kind of hoping,” she said.

Guay likes the rapport students and teachers have at local Catholic schools. She likes the values and atmosphere. So, despite the ruling, she will keep sending her youngest daughter to Catholic school.

To pay for it, her husband, a Lewiston firefighter, will keep doing carpentry work on the side, she said.

Komer believes the other families will make similar decisions.

“They’ll continue to send their kids there, but they’ll continue to work two jobs to do it,” he said. “It’s not fair.”