A family in Maine is suing the state for excluding their children from a rural tuition assistance program, a decision they say contradicts a recent Supreme Court ruling.
Keith and Valori Radonis are organic farmers with three children they would like to send to St. Dominic Academy, a private Catholic school in Auburn. The Radonis family qualifies for the Town Tuitioning Fund, a statewide program that allows families in small towns or rural areas without public schools to use tax-payer funding to help cover the cost of their children’s education.
Tuition at St. Dominic Academy ranges between $6,750 annually for preschool through fifth grade and $13,950 for high school.
Despite qualifying for the tuition assistance program, the Radonis’ were informed they cannot use the money to enroll their children in the Catholic school.
Under the state’s human rights law, religious schools cannot participate in the tuition assistance program because the regulation mandates schools be religiously neutral and opposes institutions that may violate its policies prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or sexuality.
Radonis parents have sued Maine, arguing the policies restrict students’ access to religious education and defy Carson v. Makin.
In June of 2022, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Maine could not exclude religious schools from the Town Tuitioning Fund. Maine had excluded publicly-funded, privately-run religious schools from the program since the 1980s when the governor at the time raised constitutional concerns.
The state’s exclusion of religious schools was challenged by parents on five different occasions between 1994 and 2017, reports Angelus News.
The Court ruled that, by not funding students equally, Maine had violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
“Maine has chosen to offer tuition assistance that parents may direct to the public or private schools of their choice,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. “Maine’s administration of that benefit is subject to the free exercise principles governing any public benefit program—including the prohibition on denying the benefit based on a recipient’s religious exercise.”
The ruling from America’s highest court did not change Maine’s enforcement of the tuition program because of its anti-discrimination regulations established in the Human Rights Act, which was amended shortly before the Supreme Court released its ruling. Prior to the amendment, religious schools were exempted from the law, per centralmaine.com.
“I think that just given the fact that Carson v. Makin was decided just June of last year, this is very fresh, and you’ve got the same argument here where the state was told by the Supreme Court that what you are doing is unconstitutional,” said Keith Radonis to Fox News. “You are violating the free exercise clause of religion covered under the First Amendment of the Constitution… All they’ve done now is removed Hurdle A and inserted Hurdle B and C to still try and prevent folks from accessing this tuition money, so it seems very similar to the previous case.”
The Radonises and Saint Dominic filed their federal lawsuit on June 13, naming the Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin and the five commissioners on the Maine Human Rights Commission as defendants.
The family argues that the state would not be funding religious schools with tax dollars because the money is given to parents to spend on an educational institution at their discretion.
“It is critical that folks understand it’s not the state giving money to a religious institution. All they’re doing is giving that person’s hard-earned tax dollars back to that family to make a decision,” said Mr. Radonis.
“One size doesn’t fit all and so being in a rural area where we have choices, we can fit each child, dependent on their needs, with the right school, the best choice for them,” said Valori Radonis. “And when the state closes down options, it’s not right.”