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Religious Freedom

Taxpayers may not be forced to pay for religious schools, federal court rules

Press Release

A ruling on August 13th by the federal District Court in Maine protects taxpayers from being forced to pay for religious education, dealing a defeat to anti-public education forces that are seeking to open the public tax coffers to private, sectarian schools through vouchers, tax credits, or other means. "This ruling protects everyone's religious liberty by saying that no taxpayer can be forced to subsidize someone else's religion," said Carole Shields, President of People For the American Way Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in the case. "This case was a naked attempt to abuse the public's tax dollars and rights, which the court has rightly rejected." The case, Elwood Strout et al. v. Commissioner, Maine Department of Education, arose in rural Maine, where towns and school districts too small to provide their own secondary school are permitted under state law to meet their obligations by paying tuition for students to attend either public schools in other districts or private, nonsectarian schools. The case was brought by parents who were attempting to force their town to reimburse them for the tuition they paid for their children to attend St. Dominic's Regional High School, a private, Catholic school. The parents argued that the state had no right to disallow payments to sectarian schools. In his four-page summary judgment opinion, U.S. Chief District Judge D. Brock Hornby disagreed with the argument put forth by the Catholic school parents. He wrote: "The plaintiffs certainly are free to send their children to a sectarian school. That is a right protected by the Constitution. The law is clear, however, that they do not have the right to require taxpayers to subsidize that choice." The ruling parallels a previous ruling by a Maine State court which is now on appeal. The Maine case is one of a series of closely watched court actions involving the hotly contested issue of publicly funded education vouchers. The Maine ruling explicitly does not address whether a state may choose to include sectarian schools in a voucher or other tuition reimbursement or subsidy program. That issue is expected to be put before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving the expansion of the Milwaukee voucher plan to include private sectarian schools, an expansion that takes effect with the opening of this school year. Other cases involving vouchers or tax credits to benefit private sectarian schools in Ohio, Arizona, and Vermont remain pending.