In a suit expected to be filed today in the Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice seeks to overturn a 1981 law that bans religious schools from the state's nearly 100-year-old school choice program. It's the first such suit filed since June 27, when the high court ruled constitutional Cleveland's practice of using tax money to pay for private-school tuition. More than half of vouchers used in Cleveland are used at religious schools. The money in Cleveland is used by religious schools to finance their overall programs, including religious instruction.
Under Maine's program, called ''tuitioning,'' towns--usually rural--that don't have public schools are required to pay a child's tuition to a public or private school chosen by the parents. The law prohibits parents from choosing, and towns from paying for, ''sectarian'' schools. ''The Constitution in no way justifies discriminating against parents who freely choose religious schools for their children,'' says Richard Komer, lead attorney for the lawsuit. ''Maine offers school choice to everyone except those who choose religious schools. That's religious discrimination.''
The institute is representing the families of six high school students in three small cities: Durham, Minot and Raymond.
A favorable ruling in Maine is a ''long shot,'' says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, a church-state watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court ruling permits vouchers in a state education program, he says, ''but I don't think they can force Maine to start a program they don't want.''
Lynn says other court decisions in 1999 have already made clear that the federal government cannot require state education departments to make religious schooling an option for parents paying with vouchers.
The Institute of Justice lost a similar suit filed in Maine in 1997, when the Maine Supreme Court upheld the law. Lawyers now believe that the Supreme Court's ruling opens the door to challenge that earlier decision.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled it does not matter how much taxpayer money goes to religious schools, or whether the education program benefits religious schools over secular institutions, as long as programs give parents a genuine choice between the two. It was the court's broadest decision toward allowing more public funding of religious schools, beyond paying for books and computer materials.
Despite all the debate about vouchers, surveys show Americans aren't sold on such programs to improve education. Most of the state legislatures that have considered voucher programs have abandoned the idea. And whenever vouchers have been on state ballots, voters have rejected them.