By DAVID SHARP – Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Religious schools got what they wanted when the Supreme Court allowed them to participate in a state tuition program.
But the state’s attorney general said the ruling would be meaningless unless the schools are willing to abide by the same anti-discrimination law as other private schools that participate in the program.
A lawyer for the families criticized the “reflex” comments and the leader of a religious group predicted further litigation.
The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition for private education in towns that do not have public schools. But the religious schools didn’t have long to savor their victory before they learned of a new hurdle.
Attorney General Aaron Frey said the two Christian schools involved in the lawsuit had policies that discriminate against students and staff on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, preventing their participation in the program tuition despite fierce litigation.
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“The education provided by the schools in question here is contrary to public education. They promote one religion to the exclusion of all others, refuse to admit gay and transgender children, and openly discriminate in the hiring of teachers and staff,” he said in a statement.
There was no immediate comment from two schools, Temple Academy in Waterville or Bangor Christian Schools.
Michael Bindas, senior counsel for the Institute for Justice, said the attorney general hasn’t been paying close attention to the Supreme Court’s commitment to religious freedom in recent years.
“It was an erroneous view of the Maine Attorney General that embroiled the state in five lawsuits spanning three decades and culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision against the state,” Bindas said Thursday in a statement. communicated. “The current Attorney General appears to have learned nothing from this experience.”
If the state really intends to use state law to create another hurdle, further litigation will be inevitable, said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.
The original lawsuit of three families seeking reimbursements to attend Christian schools dates back to 2018, but it goes back even further.
The state has always sought to maintain a strong line between church and state by reimbursing private schools – but not religious schools. The goal was to give students in rural areas without public secondary schools an education similar to what students in public schools receive.
In Maine, 29 private schools are participating in the program, enrolling 4,526 students, officials said. Private schools that meet state criteria can get about $12,000 in taxpayer funding per student.
The most immediate effect of the court’s decision beyond Maine will likely be in neighboring Vermont, which has a similar program.
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling could propel school choice in some of the 18 states that have not directed taxpayer dollars to private religious education. This was taken as an affirmation for states that already have voucher programs open to religious schools.
But all schools that receive state tuition must abide by the Maine Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation , ethnicity or disability, Frey said.
The last session’s legislature strengthened legislation that clarified the scope of Maine’s human rights law in education. Democratic Governor Janet Mills signed the bill into law last year.
The updated law, sponsored by Democratic Senator Craig Hickman, the first openly gay African-American to serve in both houses of the Legislature, prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of “sex, sexual orientation or gender identity,” among others.
The American Association of Christian Schools, meanwhile, dismissed concerns of discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
“We don’t see this as discrimination at all. We have a set of principles and beliefs that we believe are conducive to prosperity, the good life, so to speak, and we partner with parents who share that vision,” said spokesperson Jamison Coppola. from the Association.
The main plaintiffs, Dave and Amy Carson, were students of Conley when he was principal of Bangor Christian Schools.
Conley said the attorney general “throws down the gauntlet” for religious schools, but he said the legal precedent favors the schools.
Dave Carson, for his part, said his family would not benefit from the decision as his daughter is already a student at Husson University. But he said he doesn’t think it’s right for the state to try to erect roadblocks.
“As long as it’s an accredited school, students should be able to go wherever they want,” he said. “You teach the basics. If you also want to have a Bible course, that’s a parent’s choice, not someone from Augusta.
Bindas said the attorney general should engage in “sober reflection” on how best to balance the rights of parents in the litigation against the anti-discrimination interests of the state.
“It is possible to craft policies that respect the concerns of LGBTQ rights advocates and religious liberty advocates, but only if elected officials are genuinely engaged in this task,” he said.
Associated Press writer Collin Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.
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