State officials were scrambling Tuesday to figure out the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Maine’s ban on taxpayer funding of religious school tuition, considering whether to take legislative action to tighten up the state law or scrap the tuition program altogether.

Under Maine state law, about 5,000 high school students who live in a school district without a public high school – about 1 in 10 Maine high schoolers – can get roughly $12,000 a year in local tax dollars to put toward tuition at an accredited or pre-approved private school.

Attorney General Aaron Frey Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the part of Maine law that prevents religious schools from participating in the high school tuition program, leaving the Attorney General’s Office that argued the case in the high court wondering how to interpret the ruling.

Attorney General Aaron Frey doesn’t think many of the state’s religious schools would want to apply to get on the state Department of Education’s list of schools approved to receive public tuition funding because it would mean they’d have to abide by the Maine Human Rights Act.

That law prohibits any organization that accepts public funding – including religious organizations like the schools at the heart of this Supreme Court case – from discriminating against someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability, Frey said.

The schools involved in this lawsuit, Temple Academy in Waterville and Bangor Christian Schools, have policies that discriminate against students and staff who are gay or identify themselves as a gender other than the one listed on their birth certificate, Frey said.


Bangor Christian Schools embrace the philosophy that men are the leaders of both the household and the church, according to case documents that both the plaintiffs and the defendants agreed upon. The school budget is approved by a board of deacons that prohibits women from serving.


The school’s admissions policy said it admits students of any race, color, or national or ethnic origin, but it is silent with respect to whether it discriminates on the basis of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or religion.

According to its handbook, the school believes that a student who is homosexual or identifies as a gender other than what is on his or her original birth certificate would not be able to sign the agreement governing codes of conduct that it requires as a condition of admission.

A student who admits to being gay or representing themselves as a gender that was not listed on their birth certificate first would be counseled, and if that student did not change their mind, would be suspended and probably expelled, according to court documents.

According to case records, Temple Academy will not admit a student who is homosexual, though there are students presently enrolled who “struggle” with homosexuality. A child who is gender diverse would not be eligible for admission to Temple Academy.


Temple will not admit a child who lives in a two-father or a two-mother family, records show.

The parents of Temple students must sign a Family Covenant in which they agree with the school’s views on abortion, homosexuality and the sanctity of marriage, and acknowledge that the school can order a student’s withdrawal if “the student does not fit into the spirit of the institution,” records show.

Neither Temple nor Bangor Christian Schools responded to emails and phone calls Tuesday seeking an interview about the decision. It is unclear if they will apply to get on the state list of schools that are approved to receive publicly funded tuition students, or if the Supreme Court ruling even requires it.

Given the makeup of the court, its recent rulings and the questions asked by the judges during oral arguments, Frey said Maine was expecting to lose this decision, but noted the details of the ruling are new and said it will take time to interpret it and decide how to react.


The ruling essentially turned Maine’s tuition program, which was intended to give students without a public high school the benefit of a public school education, into a voucher program, Frey said. It undermines the desire of most Mainers to keep church and state separate.


“But it also means public dollars will be used to support educational curriculum that is not inclusive,” Frey said. “I don’t think that benefits Maine. I think it will cause strife. Policymakers are going to have to decide if they want to change the law or maybe even get rid of the tuition program.”

Many conservative families who might initially welcome this ruling may feel differently if their local tax dollars were to be used to pay tuition to an Islamic or Jewish religious school, or a school that promotes agnosticism or anything other than Christian beliefs, Frey said.

In the majority opinion, the court argued that Maine had choices if it didn’t want to open up its tuition programs to religious schools – school districts could build their own high schools, bus their students to other public high schools, set up a remote learning system or build state-run boarding schools.

“That would mean families in rural places that have historically been able to choose where they’ll send their children to get a public education could lose that right because it just won’t be there anymore,” Frey said. “Not if it means we have to put up with discriminatory practices to do it.”

Some Maine groups that advocate for LGBTQ rights took to Twitter Tuesday to protest the decision.

“We are disappointed but not surprised by today’s SCOTUS ruling,” tweeted Equality Maine, a Portland-based organization with statewide reach. “Many religious schools openly discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, promote only their beliefs, and are closed to divergent points of view.”


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