Religious Parents and Schools in Maine Sue State for Punishing Faith-Based Education

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Catholic family of five and a Catholic high school filed a lawsuit on June 13 challenging Maine’s exclusion of faith-based schools from a state tuition assistance program that has served rural families for over a century.

Even though the Supreme Court struck down Maine’s religious ban last year, bureaucrats in the state are continuing to exclude faith-based schools and families who rely on the program. In St. Dominic Academy v. Makin, the Radonis family and St. Dominic Academy, a high school operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, are fighting for their ability to help rural families educate their children in accordance with their beliefs. 

Keith and Valori Radonis are organic farmers in rural Maine who want to send their children to schools that uphold their Catholic beliefs. Both Keith and Valori grew up in Catholic homes, and they believe it is their religious duty to help plant, nurture, and cultivate the seed of faith in their own children. For years, Catholic schools in the Diocese of Portland—including St. Dominic Academy—assisted families like Radonises in providing their children with an education that reflects their beliefs through Maine’s tuition assistance program.  This program allows parents in rural school districts to educate their children at private schools with no public schools nearby. That changed in 1982 when Maine began disqualifying faith-based schools and the families they serve from the program. Today, Maine is willing to pay for families in rural areas to send their kids to out-of-state boarding schools and public schools in Canada, but it won’t pay a penny for parents that choose a religious school in Maine.

“As Catholic parents, we want to provide our children with an education that helps them grow in heart, mind, and spirit, preparing them for lives of service to God and neighbor,” said Keith and Valori Radonis. “All families should have the option to provide the education that’s right for their children using Maine’s tuition program, including religious families like ours.”

Fortunately, the Supreme Court said last year in Carson v. Makin that Maine could no longer exclude faith-based schools from the program. But Maine bureaucrats tried to do an “end run” around the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court was considering Carson, Maine passed a new law to reimpose the same restriction challenged in Carson—and add a few new ones for good measure.

Maine’s new laws block schools that receive tuition funds from allowing any religious expression unless they allow every kind—meaning that a Catholic school like St. Dominic can’t have Mass unless it also allows a Baptist revival meeting. It also gives the state’s Human Rights Commission—not parents and schools—the final word on how the school teaches students to live out Catholic beliefs regarding marriage, gender, and family life. As a result, faith-based schools are still being barred from serving rural families through the program. 

With the help of Becket, the Radonis family and St. Dominic are asking a federal court to strike down Maine’s anti-religious policy. The state cannot deny parents the choice to educate their children at religious schools simply because they provide an education rooted in faith. It also cannot sidestep the Supreme Court by changing its law to stop religious schools from being religious.

“Maine is willing to pay for kids to go to all-girls boarding schools in Massachusetts and public schools in Quebec, but parents who choose Catholic schools like St. Dominic—which have been educating Maine kids for more than a century—are still out in the cold,” said Adèle Auxier Keim, senior counsel at Becket. “Maine lawmakers boasted about changing the law to avoid the Supreme Court’s decision in Carson. That’s illegal and unfair. We are confident that Maine’s new laws will be struck down just like their old ones were.” 

Becket will ask the court to halt Maine’s ban on faith-based education immediately while the court considers the case.

Additional Information: 

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 25 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).