Maine Families Appeal School Choice Case to U.S. Supreme Court
Three Maine families are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on a state policy they say unfairly excludes religious schools as a tuition-free choice under a program that pays for alternative placement for students who don’t have a local school to attend.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2018, and Maine District Court Judge D. Brock Hornby ruled against the families in June of last year. An appeal was rejected by the 1st U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Boston in October.
The Maine families are now taking their appeal to the nation’s highest court, betting on a better chance for a favorable ruling thanks to former President Donald Trump’s appointment of three conservative justices during his term.
It also could bode well that the high court in June 2020 ruled in favor of religious freedom in a similar church vs. state case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, that said the Constitution does not allow states to discriminate against religious parents or schools when offering an educational choice program.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion on Espinoza that once a state decides to subsidize private education, it can’t disqualify schools solely because they are religious.
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The Maine families’ attorney, Michael Bindas of the Institute for Justice, said he’s optimistic that the court “will act with that same commitment here, so that all parents can access the schools that are best for their kids, whether religious or non-religious.”
However, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said the Boston appeals court was right to recognize a difference between the Montana and Maine cases and said he’s confident the Supreme Court will find the state’s tuition system in line with the First Amendment.
“A public education system should be one that promotes diversity and tolerance and exposes children to a broad range of ideas,” he said in an emailed statement to Maine Public. “Maine’s legislature wisely chose to exclude religious schools from the public education tuition program. Parents certainly have the right to opt out of the public education system and send their children to religious schools, but public dollars should not be used for that purpose.”
The Espinoza decision said religious schools and the families whose children attend them “are members of the community too, and their exclusion from [programs like Montana’s] scholarship program…is odious to our Constitution and cannot stand.”
The Maine families had filed the original lawsuit after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a religious school in Missouri that was initially denied a public grant for playground resurfacing.