Court Excludes Religious Schools From 'Tuitioning'
Maine parents whose children attend religious schools cannot be reimbursed under a state program that provides tuition for students from towns without their own high schools, the state's highest court has ruled.
The lawsuit has been watched closely as one of several state supreme court cases with national implications for the private-school-voucher movement.
Although not quite the same as the vouchers for poor children in Milwaukee and Cleveland, the long-standing "tuitioning" systems in Maine and Vermont have both been the subject of lawsuits challenging their exclusion of religious schools.
With tuitioning, towns that lack their own high schools reimburse parents for sending their children to public schools in other communities or to secular private schools.
About half the school districts in Maine do not have their own secondary schools. Before 1981, parents in those communities could be reimbursed for sending their children to religious schools. But the state legislature that year excluded religious schools on the advice that their inclusion violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.
In 1997, five families from Raymond sought reimbursement from the town's school department for the cost of tuition at Cheverus High School, a Roman Catholic school in Portland. When the town refused, the families sued the town and the state, contending that their constitutional rights of free exercise of religion and equal protection of the law were being violated.
A similar case in Vermont is pending before that state's supreme court. A key difference there is that the Chittenden school district had supported the idea of letting parents choose religious schools as part of the tuitioning program. However, the Chittenden board recently dropped its support for allowing religious schools to participate. ("Vt. District Backing Off From Choice Proposal," April 7, 1999.)
In Maine, a state trial court ruled against the Raymond parents last year. In a 5-1 decision on April 23, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the town and the state in their refusal to allow religious schools into the tuitioning program.
The majority dismissed the parents' free-exercise argument by saying that the tuitioning program does not prevent them from sending their children to Cheverus High School.
The justices also concluded that inclusion of religious schools in the tuitioning program would violate the First Amendment's clause prohibiting government establishment of religion.
Richard Komer, a lawyer with the Washington-based Institute for Justice who argued the case on behalf of the five private school families, said the ruling would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Vol. 18, Issue 34, Page 3