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Maine Christian Schools Win Trial on State-Regulation Issue

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An association of fundamentalist Christian schools in Maine has won the right to a jury trial on the question of whether the schools must comply with state education laws that affect private schools.

On Oct. 26, U.S. District Judge Conrad Cyr denied the state's request that a suit brought by the Maine Association of Christian Schools be dismissed on the grounds that the issues raised in the suit have been sufficiently addressed in other cases.

The most significant similar case, said Deputy Attorney General Rufus E. Brown, has been the much-publicized Nebraska case involving the Faith Christian School in Louisville.

Last October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Faith Christian case on the grounds that it lacked a "substantial federal question," letting stand the Nebraska Supreme Court's decision that upheld the state's right to regulate private schools.

And last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a Massachusetts case that deals with similar matters. In Bailey v. Bellotti, a church school claimed that a state law requiring the school to tell the state the names and addresses of its students violated the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. The Massachussetts Supreme Judicial Court had upheld the state's regulatory power.

Mr. Brown said the Nebraska and Maine cases raised "almost identical" constitutional issues about state regulation of private schools.

Mr. Brown also said that Judge Cyr's decision will cause unnecessary delay. "Nationwide, these issues have been resolved over and over again. Now, until we get a trial, they [the schools] have the relief they are looking for."

In his ruling, however, Judge Cyr said that there were enough differences between the states' regulatory schemes to warrant a trial in Maine. Mr. Brown disagreed, saying the differences are minor. "The subject matter is generally the same, but Maine requires more detail," he said.

Maine education statutes require that private schools submit to health, sanitation, fire, and safety inspections; offer a curriculum that matches the basic state curriculum; have certified teachers; and keep records on attendance and transfers.

The state also has final authority for "basic approval" of all public and private schools in Maine.

The Reverend Herman C. Frankland, head of the Maine Association of Christian Schools, said his group only objects to teacher-certification and basic-approval requirements.

William B. Ball, a lawyer representing the Christian schools' association, said that pertinent constitutional issues were "inadequately" handled in the Nebraska case and that the issue of church-state entangle-ment "was not raised at all."

In his decision, Judge Cyr said: "These plaintiffs [the schools] are entitled to present evidence at trial that Maine's compulsory education laws and regulations burden their religiously motivated activities. The defendants [state officials] bear the burden of proving that any governmental regulation which does burden the free excercise of plaintiffs' religion represents the least restrictive means of achieving some compelling state interest."

The Christian schools involved in the litigation charge that Maine's requirements for private schools violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against the entanglement of church and state, said Mr. Ball.

In 1979, various Christian schools, led by Mr. Frankland, informed the state commissioner of education that they would no longer comply with all of the state licensing procedures for private schools.

The issue arose earlier that year, Mr. Brown said, when legislation that would have exempted private schools from compulsory education laws was first proposed.

The legislation failed, but some schools stopped complying with the laws anyway. Subsequently, the state threatened legal action, but the Christian schools sued first, in October of 1981, asking for relief from state regulation.

No date has been set for the trial. The case is Bangor Baptist Church v. State of Maine.

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