Law & Courts

Court: Maine Aid Program Can Bar Religious Schools

By Joetta L. Sack — November 02, 2004 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

School districts in Maine are not required by the U.S. Constitution to pay tuition for students at religious high schools even when they pay for secular private schools.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, ruled unanimously last month against two families that had sought to require their school district to pay tuition at a Roman Catholic high school.

Some districts in the largely rural state have long-standing voucher-like programs, called “tuitioning,” in which they pay to enroll students at secular private schools or public schools in other districts when the home districts do not run their own high schools.

Several parents in the town of Minot, Maine, sought to have the district pay the tuition for sending their children to St. Dominic’s Regional High School, a local Catholic school. They argued in their 2002 lawsuit that a state law that bars religious schools from the tuitioning program violates their 14th Amendment right to equal protection of the law.

The families live within the borders of the 410-student Minot district, which operates a K-8 school but contracts with the neighboring Poland, Maine, district to educate its high school students. The district also will pay tuition at secular private schools for up to 10 percent of its high school population if parents can show that their children’s educational needs cannot be met at the public high school.

The parents in the lawsuit, John and Belinda Eulitt and Kelly J. MacKinnon, said that their daughters’ educational needs could not be met because the public school does not offer classes in Catholic doctrine or teach from a Catholic viewpoint. The two girls are attending St. Dominic’s with their parents paying the tuition.

“The [Maine] statute obviously and blatantly discriminates against religious private schools, because they are religious and because they teach a religious point of view,” said Steven Whiting, a Portland, Maine, lawyer who represents the families.

The same issue was litigated extensively in the 1990s in Maine and Vermont, which has a similar tuitioning program, with state and federal courts generally holding that districts were not obligated to pay religious school tuition even when they covered costs at secular private schools.

Recent Rulings Weighed

The 1st Circuit court panel analyzed the Minot case under more recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on government aid for religious schooling. The first was the high court’s 2002 ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that upheld a state program that pays for Cleveland schoolchildren to attend religious schools. The second was its ruling from earlier this year in Locke v. Davey, which upheld a Washington state scholarship program that prohibits students’ use of the state aid to pursue degrees in theology.

The 1st Circuit panel concluded that neither ruling required it to disturb a 1999 decision by another panel of its court that Maine’s prohibition against including religious schools in the tuitioning program did not violate parents’ First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

“Maine’s decision not to extend tuition funding to religious schools does not … require residents to forgo religious convictions in order to receive the benefit offered by the state—a secular education,” said the Oct. 22 opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya.

Mr. Whiting said he believes he could have had a stronger case if the Catholic school had been his plaintiff, but the school declined to participate. He said he is doubtful that he will appeal any further.

A similar case is weaving its way through Maine’s state court system. On Oct. 4, a state judge also upheld the Maine law that bars districts from paying tuition at religious schools. The plaintiffs announced last month that they are appealing that case to the state supreme court.

Related Tags:


Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Professional Development Online Summit What's Next for Professional Development: An Overview for Principals
Join fellow educators and administrators in this discussion on professional development for principals and administrators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Is Censuring a 'Rogue' School Board Member a Free Speech Violation? High Court to Decide
The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear arguments on whether official rebukes of officeholders trigger First Amendment concerns.
8 min read
Conceptual image of a board meeting.
A-Digit/DigitalVision Vectors
Law & Courts Critical Race Theory Law Violates Teachers' Free Speech, ACLU Argues in New Lawsuit
The lawsuit alleges Oklahoma's law harms students of color and weakens what all students learn about the state's history.
4 min read
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, above, is named in a new lawsuit alleging that the state's recent law restricting teaching on race and sex is unconstitutional.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, above, is named in a new lawsuit alleging that the state's recent law restricting teaching on race and sex is unconstitutional.
Sue Ogrocki/AP
Law & Courts Parkland Victims' Families Reach $25M Settlement With Broward School District
The largest payments will go to the 17 families whose children or spouses were killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
3 min read
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
Law & Courts Justice Sotomayor Denies Bid to Block Vaccine Mandate for New York City School Employees
The Supreme Court justice's refusal involves the COVID-19 vaccine requirement in the nation's largest school district.
2 min read
In this Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 file photo, senior Clinical Research Nurse Ajithkumar Sukumaran prepares the COVID 19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London. British scientists are beginning a small study comparing how two experimental coronavirus vaccines might work when they are inhaled by people instead of being injected. In a statement on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, researchers at Imperial College London and Oxford University said a trial involving 30 people would test vaccines developed by both institutions when participants inhale the droplets in their mouths, which would directly target their respiratory systems.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Oct. 1 denied a request to block a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees of the New York City school system.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP