Maine Supreme Court Rejects Private Religious School Vouchers

Americans United Applauds Decision To Protect Church-State Separation

The Maine Supreme Court ruled Friday, April 23, that publicly funded voucher subsidies for private religious schools are unconstitutional.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the groups that helped fight the voucher proposal in Maine's courts, applauded the ruling as a victory for public schools and church-state separation.

"This is a serious blow for voucher supporters in their effort to force taxpayers to finance private religious education," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "For the first time, we have state Supreme Court justices ruling that a voucher plan would violate the First Amendment. It is an important ruling, and its significance cannot be overstated."

In Maine, districts that do not have their own schools must provide tuition for families to attend other schools. Religious schools are excluded as part of this program to avoid constitutional difficulties.

In Bagley v. Raymond School Department, five families filed suit against the state, arguing that the exclusion of Cheverus High School, a Catholic school operated by the Society of Jesus in Portland, was a violation of their right of "free exercise of religion." On Friday, the state's Supreme Court rejected their claim in a 5-1 ruling.

"Although the school is chosen by parents, not the State, choice alone cannot overcome the fact that the tuition program would directly pay religious schools for programs that include and advance religion," the decision said. "None of the Supreme Court's decisions to date have ever intimated that such direct subsidies of religious schools could survive an Establishment Clause challenge."

The justices also noted, "If the religious school exclusion were eliminated, the State would likely pay more than $5,000 per student per year to Cheverus High School, without restriction on the use of those funds. In the entire history of the Supreme Court's struggle to interpret the Establishment Clause, it has never concluded that such a direct, unrestricted financial subsidy to a religious school could escape the strictures of the Establishment Clause."

Said AU's Lynn, "With decisions like these, it becomes clear that voucher supporters simply don't have the law on their side. After court defeats in Pennsylvania, Maine, Puerto Rico, Vermont and Ohio, you might think they would get the hint." (Only one court - the Wisconsin Supreme Court - has ruled that vouchers for religious schools are constitutional.)

Lynn added that today's ruling should also serve as a wake-up call to state legislatures that are considering voucher plans.

"This ruling should send a clear message to places such as New York, Florida and Texas, where voucher schemes are being considered" Lynn said. "Voucher supporters would be wise to read this decision before passing unconstitutional plans of their own."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.