The case concerns 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. The program excludes religious schools, and families who want to send their children to Christian schools in Bangor and Waterville sued to try to change that.
The justices were slated to meet Thursday to consider whether to hear the case. It was unclear when they would issue a decision about whether the case can go forward.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected the lawsuit last year, and the families appealed to the high court. They face the possibility of taking their case to a Supreme Court that has shifted in a conservative direction since they first filed in federal court three years ago.
Conflicting rules about the subject of public tuition assistance have led to confusion in lower courts, so the Supreme Court should take up the case, said Michael Bindas, the lead attorney for the families and a lawyer with the libertarian public interest firm Institute for Justice.
“Only the Supreme Court can provide that clarity, and make sure students aren’t being treated differently based on where they reside,” Bindas said. “The government shouldn’t be able to deny those parents the ability to send their children to the best available education for them.”
The lawsuit was first filed after the Supreme Court ruled that a Missouri program was wrong to deny a grant to a religious school for playground resurfacing. The issue of public funding for religious schools has also come up in other states.
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. Vermont has also faced lawsuits over a voucher program for students who live in locales that don’t have their own schools. The issue has also been raised in New Hampshire.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has filed court papers in support of Maine’s law that excludes religious schools from the tuition program. States aren’t obligated to fund religious schools, ACLU of Maine legal director Zachary Heiden said.
“Religious views infuse everything, as part of their curriculum and how they are dedicated to training future religious leaders,” Heiden said. “Which is absolutely something they can do, but it’s not something the government should be required to fund.”