Supreme Court Religious Schools Maine

Former Bangor Christian Schools student Olivia Carson, then 15, of Glenburn, stands with her mother, Amy, outside the school in 2018. Parents of students enrolled in religious schools fought for years for tuition to be reimbursed by the state. But the state changed the law, and the school is continuing to fight for public funds. Gabor Degre/Bangor Daily News via Associated Press

A federal judge has denied a Bangor church’s request to bar Maine education leaders from enforcing parts of the state’s anti-discrimination law while a lawsuit is pending.

It’s the first ruling that addresses the merits of what will likely be a long legal battle by Crosspoint Church against Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin and the Maine Human Rights Commission. The same judge is still weighing whether to grant a similar request for preliminary injunction against the state from Saint Dominic Academy, a Catholic school in Auburn.

Crosspoint, which runs Bangor Christian Schools, sued the state in March, accusing Maine of discriminating against religious schools by denying them public funds. The state has said it won’t offer funding to any institution that discriminates against protected classes under the Maine Human Rights Act, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

The church’s lawsuit came roughly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Maine’s ban on giving public funds to religious schools. That decision applied specifically to a small program for students in towns without a public high school who receive state money to attend a public or private school of their choosing.

But before that ruling was handed down, Maine lawmakers amended the state’s anti-discrimination laws to clarify existing protections for several protected classes, including those who identify as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Crosspoint has called the changes a “poison pill” and said that decision conflicts with its and other religious schools’ beliefs.

The state has denied Crosspoint’s claims and the ACLU of Maine, which intervened last spring, has argued that the outcome Crosspoint seeks “would severely undermine the state’s efforts to serve its important and long-standing goal of equality in education.”


“Everybody who receives public funding needs to play by the same rules,” said Zachary Heiden, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maine.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock denied Crosspoint’s emergency request to halt enforcement of the law, writing Tuesday that he believes Maine’s rules are “neutral, generally applicable, and rationally related to a legitimate government interest.”

Woodcock said Crosspoint hasn’t shown how the law violates its rights under the constitution to exercise religious beliefs and freedom of speech.

“The rub comes when the Maine Legislature’s view of the categories of people meriting protected status conflicts with sincerely held beliefs of members of religious communities,” Woodcock wrote. “This is a tension as old as the nation itself.”

The judge also said that Crosspoint is raising “novel constitutional questions” and that a higher court should weigh in. The church’s attorneys said they’re still considering an appeal.

One of them, Lea Patterson, said Tuesday that the gender identity and sexual orientation provisions, and those that would prevent the school from turning away anyone of a different religion, seem “designed to keep religious schools from participating” in the state’s tuition program.


“It prohibits the school from teaching from its religious perspective,” said Patterson, an attorney for the First Liberty Institute, a conservative, Christian legal nonprofit based in Texas.

Crosspoint’s “parents and students will still have to bear a financial burden that other similarly situated students are not required to bear,” said Patterson.

The Office of the Maine Attorney General, which is representing Makin and the commissioners in the case, declined to answer questions about the ruling Wednesday citing the pending litigation.

The ACLU has disagreed that Crosspoint is facing unequal treatment from the state and argued in court records that the church’s efforts are at odds with the state’s obligation to provide equal access to educational opportunity.

“What’s at stake in the case is the ability of the State of Maine to promise its people that they won’t be discriminated against by the state, or by entities that are funded by the state,” Heiden said. “Nobody should face discrimination from their government because of who they are, who their family is, who they love, their race, their religion, their ethnicity.”

Patterson disagreed that a favorable outcome for her clients would result in the state endorsing discrimination.

“A school only ever receives the tuition money from the tuition program if the parent chooses to send their child there,” Patterson said. “It’s not that the state’s choosing to endorse a particular belief of any school, because the parents are the ones that choose that.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.