Places can be found in Maine where students are not served by a public high school; families in those areas send their kids to high schools in other districts or to private schools, some of which are affiliated with religious organizations.
But like many states, Maine specifically prohibits public funds, which normally follow these families’ students to their high schools, from supporting tuition at faith-based schools. As a result, parents in districts without a high school are burdened with not being able to choose a religious school for their kids. (A few dozen states have a clause in the state constitution that prohibits public funds from going to religious schools, but Maine’s has no such clause; a decades-old law comes into play to prohibit this use of public funds in Maine.)
Three families have filed a lawsuit against the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, asking that the state allow tuition reimbursement for religious schools. They say the law discriminates against religious schools because, while it allows districts without a high school to reimburse a certain amount of tuition paid for individual students to attend outside public or private schools, it doesn’t allow any reimbursement if the outside school is affiliated with a religious organization.
“In the state of Maine, a victory in this case would allow any family who lives in a town that tuitions students to public or private schools to choose religious options,” the Press-Herald quoted Tim Keller, a senior attorney at the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, as saying. The institute is one of two national school-choice organizations representing the families, who all live in central Maine.
(Some districts in the state pay to send their students to outside schools en masse, and they would not be affected by this lawsuit.)
The state legislature has tried to undo the prohibition on tuition reimbursement for sectarian schools, but those efforts have stalled in recent years. The Institute for Justice has also tried a few times to remedy this situation for religious schools: they filed lawsuits but lost their cases in 1997 and 2002.
As we reported, a case last year was decided by the Supreme Court that would seem to open the door for religious schools in Maine: the Court ruled that public funds could be used to supply playground equipment at a Lutheran school in Missouri.
“It’s a financial burden,” the paper quoted one father in the Maine lawsuit as saying. “We live modest, conservative lives. I’d love to be driving the new vehicles like everybody else, but I choose to give my son a good education. I talk to a lot of parents that want to send their kids to do something different, and they just can’t swing it.”