Maine case gives religious law an opportunity

Three new conservative Christians on the U.S. Supreme Court could tear down the wall between church and state.

The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments from a lawsuit filed on behalf of some families in Maine who want the state to pay their children’s school fees in religious schools.

Seems familiar? It should.

In 1999, two cases were filed in state and federal courts challenging the exclusion from Maine’s religious schools and were lost in both the Maine Supreme Court and the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

Then, in 2004, two cases were again filed in state and federal courts to challenge the law and were again dismissed.

The third attempt was filed in federal court last year, and it was dismissed by the Court of Appeals, but this time the case was accepted by the United States Supreme Court.

Families are different in every trial, but some things don’t change.

Plaintiffs are typically represented by public interest law firms like the First Liberty Institute, which is dedicated to breaking down the American wall between church and state.

And over the years, the arguments they put forward have not changed. The plaintiffs say Maine’s refusal to fund religious schools violates the right of First Amendment families to freely practice their religion and their 14th Amendment right to equal protection. The two amendments are not new.

But one thing has changed: the makeup of the Supreme Court. The addition of Justices Neil Gorsuch in 2017, Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 gives these lawyers hope that they can fight the same law with the same arguments and get a completely different interpretation of the Constitution than they do. they received from several courts. in the past.

The Maine Constitution promises every child an education at taxpayer expense. In a state as large and sparsely populated as this, keeping that promise can take many forms.

For a small number of towns that do not have their own high school or contract with one nearby, that means paying tuition fees for local students to attend the school of their choice, which can be public or private – both. that private school is not religious.

Over the past two decades, Maine has successfully argued that everyone has the right to practice their religion without state interference, but that doesn’t mean the state has to do anything other than back out. If a religion dictates that its followers attend special schools, payment is not the responsibility of the public. Courts have also found that the state fulfills its obligation to provide equal treatment to all when it provides state-funded education to everyone. It does not have to give certain members of certain religions a religious instruction financed by the taxpayers.

And what would Maine taxpayers have to support if the Supreme Court ruled that all the other courts were wrong? One of the winners would be the Bangor Christian School, one of whose stated educational goals is to “lead every unsaved student to trust Christ as their personal Savior, and then to follow Christ as the Lord of their life. “.

Another would be the Temple Academy in Waterville with its “biblically integrated education,” in which the Bible is used in every subject taught. Staff contracts warn that “God recognizes homosexuals and other deviants as perverted” and that “such deviation from biblical standards is grounds for termination.”

There is a place for such institutions in a pluralistic society. But they shouldn’t be getting public money, regardless of who sits on the Supreme Court.

– December 9, 2021

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