Families challenge Maine's refusal to pay tuition at religious schools
By The Associated Press
PORTLAND, Maine Six Maine families joined yesterday in a lawsuit that seeks to force the state to pay for their children's tuition at religious schools.
The lawsuit, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, is the first of three planned by a Washington, D.C., legal advocacy group that hopes to use a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Ohio case to expand the use of vouchers in religious schools.
The group argues that a 1981 Maine law barring the use of publicly funded vouchers at religious schools is unconstitutional. Similar challenges are expected soon in Vermont and Washington state.
An estimated 17,000 Maine students from 145 small towns without schools of their own currently use vouchers for all or part of their tuition at public and private secular schools.
The state law was challenged unsuccessfully five years ago by a Raymond couple, Cynthia and Robert Bagley. The Supreme Judicial Court upheld the law, concluding that the use of public funding for students in religious schools violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that the voucher program in Cleveland was constitutional because it offers parents a wide range of choices among secular and religious schools.
The Institute for Justice, the legal advocacy group that represents the six families in the latest lawsuit, says that decision takes away the legal underpinnings for the ruling in the Bagley case.
Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe has said that Maine's program is different from Cleveland's, and Maine towns have been told to continue to bar the use of vouchers at religious schools.
Sarah Forster, an assistant attorney general, said yesterday that she had not yet seen the lawsuit filed by the six families.
But she reaffirmed Rowe's view that the Maine law remains valid because in upholding the Ohio law, the Supreme Court did not prohibit states from barring public funding for vouchers at religious schools.
Robert Komer, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, expressed confidence that the state high court would come to a different conclusion than it did in the Bagley case.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has said that we were right the first time, and we're unquestionably right now," Komer said. "The Constitution in no way justifies discriminating against parents who freely choose religious schools for their children."
Komer was joined at a news conference outside the courthouse by Jill and Lionel Guay of Minot, one of the six families listed as plaintiffs.
The Guays are seeking to use the voucher for their 15-year-old daughter, Ashley, a sophomore at St. Dominic Regional High School in Auburn.
Other plaintiffs are from Raymond and Durham. Those two towns, like Minot, do not have high schools and provide tuition vouchers for their high school-age students.
In the earlier legal challenge, the Bagleys sought tuition to send their child to a Roman Catholic high school in Portland. Four other families eventually joined the suit and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999, which declined to hear it.
None of the six families in the latest suit participated in the Bagley case.
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