Maine’s Religious Schools Still Excluded from Choice Program

Published December 1, 2004

Despite the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court’s Zelman decision, which approved the inclusion of religious schools in school choice programs, Maine Superior Court Justice Robert E. Crowley on September 30 upheld a 1981 state law excluding religious schools from the state’s nearly 100-year-old school choice “tuitioning” program.

The challenge to the state law was filed two years ago by the Washington, DC-based public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice. The group plans to appeal the ruling to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Instead of constructing and maintaining their own high schools for a very small number of students, the school districts in many of Maine’s rural communities pay for the students to attend a public or private school chosen by their parents. Religious schools were included among the private school choices until 1981, when the state legislature barred them from the program in the belief that including them would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Since the 2002 Zelman decision showed that belief was mistaken, parents like Lionel and Jill Guay of Minot want their schools of choice–religious schools–put back into the program.

“All we are asking for is the right to send our daughter to the school of our choice,” said Jill Guay. “We shouldn’t lose that right just because a religious school happens to be the best school for our daughter.”

The Institute for Justice (IJ), the nation’s leading legal school choice advocacy organization, is representing the Guays and seven other families from three small towns in Maine–Durham, Minot, and Raymond–where the local school districts have tuitioning programs but exclude religious schools from the parents’ range of choices.

“School choice isn’t true choice when the State removes an entire class of options, as Maine did when it barred religious schools from participating in its tuitioning program,” said IJ Senior Litigation Attorney Richard Komer. “Maine’s tuitioning program should not favor religion, but to discriminate against religion as it now does is simply unfair and unconstitutional. The State should allow parents to select religious schools for their children among a range of other private and public options.”

George Clowes ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.