PORTLAND (AP) – Lawyers presented arguments Friday in a 2-year-old lawsuit challenging a Maine law that prevents families from using state tuition vouchers to send their children to religious schools.

Represented in the lawsuit are eight families from Durham, Minot, and Raymond. School districts in those towns offer tuition for students to attend high schools of their choice, but religious schools are not on the list.

The lawsuit, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, argues that a 1981 Maine law barring the use of publicly funded vouchers at religious schools is unconstitutional.

“It is the families who are paying the tuition. It is the families who are burdened by paying the tuition. And it is the families who would benefit if the schools are put back on the list,” said attorney Richard Komer of the Institute for Justice who is arguing the case.

An estimated 17,000 Maine students from 145 small towns without schools of their own have used vouchers for all or part of their tuition at public and private secular schools.

A similar challenge of the state law was made unsuccessfully in 1997 by a Raymond couple. The Supreme Judicial Court upheld the law then, concluding that the use of public funding for students in religious schools is unconstitutional.

The group has since argued that a 1981 Maine law barring the use of publicly funded vouchers at religious schools is unconstitutional. Similar cases are being argued in Florida and Arizona.

But Komer argues that Maine’s law must follow precedent set by a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which allowed families in Cleveland to use tuition vouchers at religious schools.

Komer was joined in court by several families who are named on the lawsuit, including Jerilyn Ward, of Raymond, and her two sons. Her family is not Roman Catholic, but her oldest son attends St. Dominic Regional High School in Auburn.

Ward said she was “blown away” by some of the arguments attorneys for the state were using in court.

“To me, it’s all just about fairness,” she said.

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