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Federal lawsuit filed against Maine law that blocks school choice

The suit comes less than one year after the U.S. Supreme Court determined Maine discriminated against religious schools, according to a release.

Published: March 29, 2023 1:00pm

Updated: March 29, 2023 10:59pm

A new federal lawsuit in Maine challenges a state law that prevents participation in the school choice program.

First Liberty Institute and Consovoy McCarthy PLLC, on behalf of Bangor Christian School, has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Maine seeking a preliminary injunction that urges the court to stop a state law preventing students from participating in the school choice program based on their religious beliefs.

The suit comes less than one year after the U.S. Supreme Court determined Maine discriminated against religious schools, according to a release.

“Maine lost at the U.S. Supreme Court just last year but is not getting the message that religious discrimination is illegal,” Lea Patterson, Counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement. “Maine’s new law imposes special burdens on religious schools in order to keep them out of the school choice program. Government punishing religious schools for living out their religious beliefs is not only unconstitutional, it is wrong.”

Court documents show Crosspoint Church, the plaintiff, is suing Pender Makin, in her official capacity as commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, and Jefferson Ashby, Edward David, Julie Ann O’Brien, Mark Walker, and Thomas Douglas, in their official capacities as commissioners of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

According to the release, the state’s tuition program, which is the second oldest in the nation, allows parents who live in school districts that do not have a high school to send their children to a public or private school of their choosing.

The 2022 Supreme Court decision in the Carson v. Makin case, illustrated parents “could not use their tuition benefit at a religious school,” which had been ongoing since 1980. However, according to the release, the state, in anticipation of the high court’s ruling, changed the law through the Legislature that would require students attending Bangor Christian School to “violate its sincerely held religious beliefs” in order to participate in the program.

According to the release, the school, in what it calls a “poison pill,” would be prevented from “teaching from its religious perspective” or take into consideration during admissions an “applicants’ alignment with the school’s statement of faith and religious educational mission.”

In the motion, according to a release, attorneys said, “This ‘poison pill’ effectively deters religious schools from participating and thereby perpetuates the religious discrimination at the heart of the sectarian exclusion.”

The suit alleges that “from the start” the state’s attorney general and then-Speaker of the House of Representatives “admitted the scheme was intentional.”

According to the release, the “poison pill” had specifically targeted the plaintiff in the case, who operates the school that two of the plaintiffs in the suit attended.

The lawsuit, according to the release, claims the enforcement of the Maine Human Rights Act was enforced to discriminatorily exclude the school, which is deemed a qualified school, from becoming tuition eligible and violating the Free Exercise, Establishment, and Free Speech clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

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