Religious schools may face another hurdle in state education

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Religious schools got what they wanted when the Supreme Court allowed them to participate in a state education program.

But the state attorney general said the ruling will be in vain unless the schools are willing to abide by the same anti-discrimination law as other private schools participating in the program.

A lawyer for the families criticized the “knee-shock” statements and the leader of a religious group predicted further lawsuits.

The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that: Maine cannot exclude religious schools from a program that offers education for private education in cities that do not have public schools. But religious schools did not have long to revel in their victory before they encountered a new hurdle.

Attorney General Aaron Frey said both Christian schools involved in the lawsuit have policies that discriminate against students and staff on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, preventing their participation in the curriculum despite hard-fought lawsuits.

“The education provided by the schools under discussion here is at odds with public education. They promote a single 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 response from two schools, Temple Academy in Waterville or Bangor Christian Schools.

Michael Bindas, senior lawyer for the Institute for Justice, said the attorney general has not paid much attention to the Supreme Court’s commitment to religious freedom in recent years.

“It was a misconception by the Attorney General of Maine who had the state embroiled in five lawsuits spanning three decades and culminating in the Supreme Court ruling against the state,” Bindas said in a statement Thursday. “The current Attorney General appears to have learned no lessons from that experience.”

If the state really intends to use state law to create another obstacle, more lawsuits will be inevitable, said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.

The original lawsuit of three families seeking fees to attend Christian schools dates back to 2018, but goes back even further.

The state has always tried to maintain a line between church and state by reimbursing private schools – but not religious schools. The aim was to provide rural students without a public high school with an education comparable to what public school students receive.

In Maine, 29 private schools are participating in the program, with 4,526 students enrolled, officials said. Private schools that meet the state’s criteria can get about $12,000 in tax dollars per student.

The most immediate effect of the court’s ruling outside of Maine will likely be in nearby Vermont, which has a similar program.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision could boost school choice in some of the 18 states that have not spent taxpayers’ money on private, religious education. It was seen as confirmation for states that already have voucher programs open to religious schools.

But all schools that receive state education must adhere to the Maine Human Rights Act, which prohibits discriminating against anyone on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability, Frey said.

The legislature in its last session strengthened the law clarifying the scope of the Maine Human Rights Act in education. Democratic Governor Janet Mills signed the bill 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 based on, among other things, “gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

The American Association of Christian Schools, meanwhile, brushed aside concerns about discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

“We don’t see it 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 work with parents who share that vision,” said Jamison Coppola, spokesperson for the association.

The lead prosecutors, Dave and Amy Carson, were students of Conley when he was principal of the Bangor Christian Schools.

Conley said the attorney general has “put down the gauntlet” on religious schools, but he said a legal precedent favors the schools.

Dave Carson, for his part, said his family will not benefit from the ruling because his daughter is already a junior at Husson University. But he said he doesn’t think it’s right for the state to try to put up roadblocks.

“As long as it’s an accredited school, students should be able to go where they want,” he said. ‘You learn the basics. If you also want to have a Bible class, that is the choice of a parent, not someone in Augusta.”

Bindas said the attorney general should take “sober reflection” on how best to balance parental rights in the trial against the state’s anti-discrimination interests.

“It is possible to develop policies that respect the concerns of both LGBTQ rights advocates and religious freedom advocates, but only if elected officials are truly committed to that task,” he said.

Associated Press writer Collin Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.

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