Court Limits 'Tuitioning' Aid in Maine

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A federal appeals court has upheld the state of Maine's refusal to reimburse parents who send their children to religious schools.

The May 27 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit is the latest in a spate of legal decisions related to private school vouchers.

In April, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, the state's highest court, reached the same result in a separate case.

Both cases dealt with Maine's long-standing system known as "tuitioning," in which towns lacking their own high schools reimburse parents for sending their children to public high schools in other communities or to secular private schools.

In the latest case, parents from the towns of Minot and West Minot sought tuition reimbursement for sending their children to St. Dominic's Regional High School, a Roman Catholic school in nearby Lewiston.

The three-judge panel of the Boston-based appeals court unanimously rejected the argument that Maine's exception of religious schools from the tuitioning program did not violate the Catholic school parents' First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion.

Two of the judges went further and agreed with the Maine high court that inclusion of religious schools would violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

Appeal Expected

Michael Simpson, the assistant general counsel of the National Education Association, said the ruling was significant because it was the first time a federal appeals court had weighed in during the current era of nationwide debate over vouchers.

"We think this court got it right," said Mr. Simpson, whose union filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the state.

Last month, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the Cleveland voucher program based on the way it was enacted by the state legislature. The court ruled, however, that providing vouchers to students in religious schools would not violate federal and state constitutional provisions barring government aid to religion. ("Ohio Court Issues Mixed Verdict on Voucher Program," June 2, 1999.)

Vincent P. McCarthy, a lawyer with the American Center for Law and Justice, said the appeals court ruling would be appealed.

The court "ignored all of the recent statements by the [U.S.] Supreme Court" on neutral aid to religion, said Mr. McCarthy, who represented the Maine parents as the Northeast regional counsel for the Virginia Beach, Va.-based ACLJ.

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Page 14>

Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Court Limits 'Tuitioning' Aid in Maine
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