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SCOTUS hears arguments in Maine tuition assistance program case

The lawsuit claims Maine's tuition assistance program is unconstitutional because it does not provide funding for students attending religious schools.

MAINE, USA — The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in Carson v. Makin, involving Maine's tuition assistance program. 

The state of Maine is the defendant in this case. As it stands, Maine law entitles every child to free public education. In cities or towns without schools, funding is provided for students to study at any public or private school of their choice, as long as that school is not associated with any religion or religious entity.

It's a practice the state sees as remaining "religiously neutral."

Michael Bindas represents the plaintiffs in this case, three families from Waldo and Penobscot counties. The Carson family, of Glenburn, first filed the lawsuit in 2018. 

Their daughter went to Bangor Christian School from kindergarten through high school. The family is arguing that since Glenburn doesn't have its own high school, their daughter's tuition should be covered under Maine's tuition assistance program. 

The Gillis family of Orrington and the Nelsons of Palermo are in similar situations.

The plaintiffs argued the tuition assistance program is unconstitutional because it is discriminating against religions, violating the First Amendment.

"Parents know best what's going to work for their child's education. Parents should be empowered to make that choice. And the state has no business denying an otherwise available financial assistance benefit to a family simply because a family thinks that a religious school is the best school for their child. That's what Maine is doing, and it's unconstitutional," Bindas said.

Christopher C. Taub, Maine Chief Deputy Attorney General, is representing the state in this case. 

"The reason that schools that promote a particular faith are not eligible to participate is simple. Maine has determined that, as a matter of public policy, public education should be religiously neutral," Taub said.

Peter Brann is a former state solicitor for the Maine Attorney General's office. He successfully defended the law against similar claims of religious discrimination in years past. He said this tuition program is funded by tax dollars.

"People have the right to decide they don't want to subsidize a religious school with their public tax dollars," Brann said.

Brann said he believes there's a good chance the Supreme Court will ultimately deem Maine's law unconstitutional, allowing tax dollar support for Maine's tuition assistance program to fund the education of students attending private school.

"This Supreme Court has been very fiercely defensive of religious rights and has struck down a number of laws where public benefits were being made available and said they also have to be made available to religious institutions," Brann said. 

Bindas said he shares this confidence and believes the families will win this case. 

It's expected that SCOTUS will issue an opinion on the case this spring.

More NEWS CENTER Maine stories. 

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