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Judge Rules Maine May Not Shut Unapproved Christian Schools

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Bangor, Me--A federal judge has ruled that the Maine State Department of Educational and Cultural Services overstepped its legal authority by threatening to close Christian schools that refused to comply with state requirements for private schools.

The ruling, handed down last month by U.S. District Judge Conrad K. Cyr, means that the schools will stay open despite the state's effort to close them for refusing to comply with teacher-certification and curriculum requirements.

The judge ruled that although the state does have the statutory right to prosecute parents who send children to schools that have not complied with the requirements under truancy laws, it does not have the right to prevent such schools from operating.

The suit, Bangor Baptist Church v. State of Maine, was brought by the Maine Association of Christian Schools in 1981. The association filed suit after several years of controversy over the state's right to require religiously affiliated schools to comply with its education laws.

The laws require private schools to 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.

In 1979, some of the schools--including the Bangor Christian School--told the state that they would no longer comply with the re-quirements. In 1981, state education officials sent out letters informing the schools that the state education department would close them if they failed to comply.

A representative of the Christian schools' group said last year that the schools objected only to the teacher- and basic-approval requirements.

The schools involved in the suit charged that the state's laws for private schools violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against the entanglement of church and state, a lawyer for the schools said when the district court ruled that the schools were entitled to a jury trial. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1982).

Constitutional Issue

Officials in Maine and other states had predicted that a ruling on the constitutional issue of the separation of church and state could have national ramifications. But the judge apparently chose to sidestep the constitutional issue and address only the issue of the reach of state law.

The case attracted national attention because it was the first of its kind to reach federal courts and because Maine's private-school regulations are the "least restrictive" of the 12 states that have such licensing requirements, according to ex-perts who testified here last spring.

In the suit, the private Christian schools argued that they are an arm of their respective churches and that government efforts to regulate teacher qualifications and curricula violated their First Amendment rights. State lawyers countered that the state has an interest in maintaining educational standards.

But Maine law, Judge Cyr said in his ruling, does not bar "private schools from operating merely because they are unapproved or refuse to seek or accept approval."

"If the legislature had meant to ban the operation of unapproved private schools, it would have said so in clear and unmistakable language."

The law does, however, set up procedures for prosecuting parents or guardians who keep children out of schools. This procedure "would have a significant effect on the schools, thereby affording the state substantial de facto control over the church schools," the judge said.

Deputy Attorney General Rufus Brown said the legislature can take action in the future to provide more specific authorization for such regulatory activities.

In one portion of his decision, Judge Cyr indicated that he was not in favor of state regulation of all aspects of the schools' curricula. He wrote: "The religious worship and discussion, integral aspects of the curricula of the plaintiff church schools, constitute forms of speech and association entitled to full First Amendment protection."

One member of the legislature's Education Committee said of the decision: "It has left us all in a vague position about how to monitor the educational integrity of Christian schools."

At the center of the controversy is the Rev. Herman C. Frankland, head of the Christian schools' association and pastor of the Bangor Baptist Church. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1983.) "The state cannot shut us down, and we truly thank God for that," said Mr. Frankland, a one-time gubernatorial candidate in this state. Mr. Frankland is credited with leading the court battle against the state requirements.

"We tried to educate, we tried to negotiate, we tried to legislate, and finally we were forced to litigate," Mr. Frankland said. "It appears that the state has little recourse. If that is the case, I hope they leave us alone, because I believe our schools are doing a fine job."

State officials have not yet decided whether to appeal Judge Cyr's ruling or what their next step will be.

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