Catholic parents sue state officials for dismissing Supreme Court decision granting religious schools tuition funding

(Daily Caller News Foundation) – Two parents and a Catholic high school filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin for allegedly discriminating against…

(Daily Caller News Foundation) – Two parents and a Catholic high school filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin for allegedly discriminating against religious students and schools seeking state tuition funding.

The Supreme Court ruled in Carson v. Makin in 2022 that the state of Maine could not prohibit religious students or schools from applying for the state’s tuition program, but in anticipation of the court’s decision, the state amended the Human Rights Act (HRA) in 2021 to bar state funds from being used for religious educational purposes, according to the lawsuit. In response, Catholic parents Keith and Valori Radonis and St. Dominic Academy under the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland filed a lawsuit arguing that state officials were purposely attempting to circumvent the Supreme Court and discriminating against religious families. 

“As Catholic parents, we want to provide our children with an education that helps them grow in heart, mind, and spirit, preparing them for lives of service to God and neighbor,” the Radonis said in a press release. “All families should have the option to provide the education that’s right for their children using Maine’s tuition program, including religious families like ours.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Carson, St. Dominic Academy is unable to access the state funding for the 2023-2024 school year due to the state’s HRA, which created multiple restrictions for any religious school trying to apply to the tuition program, according to the lawsuit. Becket Law, the firm representing the parents and St. Dominic, requested that the U.S. District Court issue an injunction to halt Maine’s law while the case goes through the court system.

“Families that live in a district without a public school can take state funds and use them at the private school of their choice – even to send their kids to boarding schools out of state,” Adèle Auxier Keim, senior counsel at Becket Law, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “The one thing they couldn’t do was send their kids to religious schools in Maine. That’s illegal and unfair to the families in Maine that want to send their kids to religious schools.”

Maine’s laws against religious schools accessing state funding go back decades, according to the lawsuit. Former Maine Attorney General James Tierney issued an opinion in 1980 saying that schools that were “sectarian,” which were “characterized by a pervasively religious atmosphere,” could not be allowed to use state funding in order to adhere to the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars making a “law respecting an establishment of religion.”

The Supreme Court ruled in Carson that Maine’s law “operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise,” and therefore violated the First Amendment, according to its text. However, the state changed the HRA to bar religious schools from giving religious students priority in the admissions process to keep the restrictions in place regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, according to the lawsuit.

Keim told the DCNF that these changes, and several others, make it impossible for a school like St. Dominic to adhere to its statement of faith and gain access to the tuition program.

“The Supreme Court told Maine it couldn’t exclude religious schools from its program,” Keim said. “But Maine saw the writing on the wall … They said that schools in Maine’s tuition program can’t ‘discriminate’ on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity and that schools have to allow all religious expression equally. That means that if a Catholic school holds a Mass, it has to allow students to organize a Baptist revival meeting too. And it also means that the Maine Human Rights Commission gets to decide how Catholic schools teach students to live out Catholic teachings about marriage, sex, and family life.”

The Maine DOE and the state’s Human Rights Commission did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.