Supreme Court considers state funding for religious education in rural Maine

Published: Dec. 16, 2021 at 11:21 AM EST
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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine (WAGM) - Maine is home to a groundbreaking supreme court case defining the contours of Church and State.

The Carson family lives in rural Penobscot County, in a town with no public secondary school. Families in their area receive state tuition vouchers to attend another district’s public school, or a state approved private school. It’s not a unique situation in Maine, where several rural areas are without public secondary education. But the Carson family wanted to send their child to Bangor Christian schools—and tuition vouchers don’t apply to religious schools.

“The first amendment prohibits the establishment of religion and it really doesn’t say what religion is or how its interpreted,” said local lawyer Frank Bemis of Bemis and Rossignol.

Three families in rural Maine took Carson v Makin all the way to the United States Supreme Court for oral arguments last Wednesday. The Carsons, Gillises, and Nelsons argue that, in their school administrative units without public secondary schools, state funding should apply to all schools, even those with religious teachings.

“Religious families are going to have the same challenge in a rural areas, and so our perspective is since education is difficult in that area and the State of Maine feels the need to provide funds so students can find educational options that suit their needs, that it’s appropriate that religious families be able to participate in that,” said Jamison Coppola.

Coppola is the government relations director of the American Association of Christian Schools. Coppola believes state-provided tuition to send students to either secular or religious schools would fulfill the promise of free exercise in the first amendment. Carson v Makin comes down to the separation of Church and State-- the dual promise of free religious exercise by the Church and no religious establishment by the State.

“Lately there’s been a change in perspective and that change in perspective has gone from looking at what the taxpayer has to fund--are my moneys going to fund a particular religious faith...or are the religions themselves being discriminated against?” proposed Bemis.

Frank Bemis, a local lawyer, says the first amendment prohibits the establishment of religion, but there’s also a key difference between some religious schools and others.

“There is a difference in Maine between a religious school that has religious instruction and one that does not, and the difference is that they cannot get public funding if they have religious instruction.”

If Carson wins, it lays precedent for state funds to pay for religious education...if Makin wins, it will secure the current application of the first amendment.

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