MCLU Applauds U.S. Supreme Court Decision Not to Accept Case Challenging Maine Law Protecting Religious Freedom

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
November 28, 2006 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – This week the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case that sought to undermine Maine’s prohibition on using taxpayer funds to subsidize religious education. The Maine Civil Liberties Union argued successfully in support of the position taken by the state of Maine and approved earlier by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

In refusing to second-guess the Maine courts, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 20-year-old law that has now withstood numerous attacks in both the courts and the legislature. The state, with the support of the MCLU, has firmly held that taxpayer funds should not be used to finance religious education at private schools. This was yet the latest defeat for groups that have repeatedly attempted to open the state treasury in support of their religious beliefs.

In the case, Julia Anderson et al. v. Town of Durham et al., the Cumberland County Superior Court and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Maine’s decision not to fund religion was constitutional under the First Amendment. The plaintiffs sought to have taxpayer funds finance private education at religious schools.

“The government shouldn’t be using our taxpayer dollars to fund somebody else’s religious education,” said Jeff Thaler of the law firm Bernstein Shur, who represented the MCLU pro bono in this case and three other similar lawsuits. “Neither government-sponsored religion nor religion-sponsored government is consistent with the religious liberty that we enjoy today in America.”

In declining to hear the case, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the 6-1 decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In that earlier opinion the state’s highest court agreed that the problems of government entanglement with religion provided a rational basis for the state’s law, writing: “[I]t is possible to envision that there may be conflicts between state curriculum, record keeping and anti-discrimination requirements and religious teachings and religious practices in some schools. These conflicts could result in significant entanglement of State education officials in religious matters if religious schools were to begin to receive public tuition funds and the State moves to enforce its various compliance requirements on the religious schools.”

The Anderson case is nearly identical to three other lawsuits brought since 1997, when the first case, Bagley v. Raymond School Department, was filed in Cumberland County Superior Court. That case also made its way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled in 1999 that Maine was not required to subsidize religious schooling. Two other cases were brought in federal courts during the same time period. In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit also determined the law to be constitutional in Strout v. Albanese and in 2004 with the case of Eulitt et al. v. Maine Department of Education, the First Circuit again ruled in favor of the constitutionality of Maine’s law.

In that opinion, the First Circuit wrote: “Maine’s decision not to extend tuition funding to religious schools does not threaten any civil or criminal penalty. By the same token, it does not in any way inhibit political participation. Finally, it does not require residents to forgo religious convictions in order to receive the benefit offered by the state—a secular education.”

The MCLU represented nine taxpayers from the town of Raymond as intervenor defendants in the Anderson case.

“Religious schools should be free to hire whomever they want to hire and admit only those whom they wish to admit, but we should not fund that discrimination with tax-dollars that we all pay,” said Zachary Heiden, an MCLU staff attorney. “We would not have the rich religious heritage that we enjoy if government was involved in religion.”

A bill was introduced in the 2003 Maine Legislature to repeal Maine’s current law, thereby permit public funding of tuition at religious private schools. That bill was defeated on the floor after a full and spirited debate.

“The Constitution doesn’t require Maine to subsidize religious schooling, nor should it,” said Shenna Bellows, MCLU Executive Director. “It is because of government non-interference with religion that religion has flourished in this country as it has nowhere else.”

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