FFRF hails decision affirming secular education in Maine

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is applauding a circuit court judgment that upholds the secular nature of the Maine public education system in a case in which the state/church watchdog filed an amicus brief.

“A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld the state of Maine’s exclusion of ‘sectarian’ schools from its program of paying private school tuition for students in communities without high schools,” reports Education Week.

In its decision, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that even in light of recent precedent established in the Supreme Court’s disastrous decisions in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza, the plaintiffs in Carson v. Makin could not successfully challenge Maine’s requirement that its tuition assistance program support only “nonsectarian” private schools. Simply put, the decision stated that the “nonsectarian” requirement did not exclude religious schools based on their religious status, but rather protected the state’s interest in only supporting education that was itself nonreligious. Thus, schools are excluded from Maine’s program not based upon what they are or what they believe, but solely based on what they propose to do with the state’s money.

Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter sat on the case and joined with Circuit Judges David Barron and Bruce Selya in ruling in favor of the state of Maine.

FFRF had filed an amicus brief last November in this case arguing that Maine’s existing distinction between religious and secular private schools protects religious liberty by ensuring that Maine taxpayers are not compelled to support a religion that is not their own.

“The constitutional prohibition on states taxing citizens for the benefit of religion, directly or indirectly, guarantees religious liberty for all,” the brief stated. “As Thomas Jefferson explained in the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, ‘to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.’”

The court agreed with FFRF’s perspective.

“Maine’s Constitution instructs the state’s Legislature to ensure that its local institutions have the means to provide the benefits of a free public education to their children,” it concludes. “There is no question that Maine may ensure that such a public education is a secular one, just as there is no question that the Free Exercise Clause ensures that Mainers, like all Americans, are free to opt for a religious education for their children if they wish.”

The decision eloquently elaborates on this line of reasoning.

“In conditioning the availability of that assistance on the requirement that recipients use it for educational instruction that is as nonsectarian in content as the free public education that is not directly available to them, Maine transgresses neither the Free Exercise Clause nor the Establishment Clause, nor any of the other provisions of the federal Constitution that the plaintiffs invoke,” it states.

FFRF hails the court’s common-sense protection of the constitutional separation of state and church.

“The 1st Circuit has engaged in a sound defense of our Constitution,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We hope other courts and jurisdictions will sit up and take notice.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization representing more than 33,000 nonreligious members and several chapters across the country, including members and a chapter in Maine.

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Freedom From Religion Foundation

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