PORTLAND, Maine (AP) —
The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Friday that it will hear a case brought by families from Maine who want to use a state tuition program to send their children to religious schools.
At the heart of the case is a Maine Department of Education rule that allows families who live in towns that don’t have public schools to receive public tuition dollars to send their children to the public or private school of their choosing. That program excludes religious schools.
Families who want to send their children to Christian schools in Bangor and Waterville sued to try to change that, but have been denied in lower federal courts. They appealed to the high court, and the Supreme Court’s order list said on Friday that it’s taking up the case.
The libertarian public interest firm Institute For Justice, which is representing the families, described the case as a “potentially landmark case” in a statement on Friday. Michael Bindas, the lead attorney in the case, said by “singling out religion — and only religion — for exclusion from its tuition assistance program,” Maine has limited the rights of the families.
“That’s unconstitutional and we’re confident that the Supreme Court is going to hold as much,” Bindas said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Maine has successfully defended its rule through every step of the court process. Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a statement that religious schools are excluded from the program “because the education they provide is not equivalent to” public education.
“Parents are free to send their children to such schools if they choose, but not with public dollars. I am confident that the Supreme Court will recognize that nothing in the Constitution requires Maine to include religious schools in its public education system,” Frey said.
The lawsuit was filed in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that a Missouri program was wrong to deny a grant to a religious school for playground resurfacing. That ruling opened the door for more challenges to rules about religious schools and public funding.
In one high-profile case, the Supreme Court ruled in a Montana case last year that states have to give religious schools the same access to public money that other private schools benefit from. Similar issues have also been raised in other states, such as Vermont and New Hampshire.
The Maine case has the potential to have major ramifications for school choice advocates, said Jamie Gass, director of education policy at Boston-based Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a free market policy group that cheered the Montana ruling.
“Now, the Court’s willingness to hear this Maine case, which centers around the state discriminating against parents who want to access the state’s tuition-assistance program to send their children to local, religiously-affiliated schools, holds the promise of further restoring our framers’ original vision of schooling firmly grounded in religious liberty,” Gass said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has filed court papers in support of Maine’s rules that exclude religious schools from the tuition program. ACLU of Maine legal director Zachary Heiden said he’s confident court will again uphold Maine’s rules.
“Every court, state and federal, that has reviewed Maine’s tuitioning law has found it to be constitutional,” Heiden said. “We hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will agree.”
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