What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Maine will find out in the coming school year.

A lot has changed since I wrote about state-funded Christian education in January. The Supreme Court’s decision in Casey v. Makin has all but forced Maine to pay for Christian education, and private Christian schools are claiming their teachers are ministers.

State-funded religion violates the Maine Constitution and the U.S. Constitution, and schoolteachers are not considered ministers under the ministerial exception act.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor got it right when she commented on another case that also applies to Casey v. Makin. The Supreme Court’s agenda of turning America into a Christian nation was revealed when they overturned Roe v. Wade. Justice Sotomayor bluntly asked whether the court will “survive the stench” that overturning Roe “creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts.” Will the nation survive the stench of state-funded Christian education?

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey outlined the state’s policy: “Instruction that inculcates, instills, imbues a religious view through its materials, through its teachings, prescribing that there’s one religion above others and that there are certain ways of the world that are consistent with that religion … contradicts a public education.”

There is a caveat in the SCOTUS edict though. The Supreme Court cannot force Maine to pay for Christian education. But, if Maine chooses to pay for private secular school education, the Supreme Court can require the state to fund private Christian education too. Maine can avoid paying religious school tuition by no longer subsidizing private schools.

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Either decision Maine makes on this issue will put the state in a legal bind. If the state elects to stop subsidizing private secular schools, a backlash from parents with children in those schools can be expected. Continuing the policy of paying for private school tuition now obligates the state to fund private Christian education as well. By funding Christian education, Maine will be endorsing any anti-LGBT teachings by the Christian schools and will put Maine in direct conflict with its own Human Rights Commission policies.

Fortunately, Maine requires the private schools it funds ($56 million annually) to follow public school protocols. Private Christian schools were exempt until SCOTUS required Maine to fund religious schools. Now private Christian schools funded by Maine will have to abide by public school protocols. These private religious schools will no longer be able to ignore Maine’s Human Rights Commission policies.

Some private religious schools have said they will not accept Maine funds if they must follow Maine’s Human Rights Commission policies. My concern is some private Christian schools will accept state funds and not follow Maine’s human rights laws, thus intentionally creating a situation where Maine will sue them.

If that happens, and the case eventually goes to the Supreme Court, there is little doubt the court will rule in favor of the private Christian school.

One dubious defense Christian schools may use is the legal doctrine known as the ministerial exception to justify discrimination against all workers at religious schools. Religious employers and conservative Christian legal groups are urging courts to adopt an ever-broader interpretation of the ministerial exception, which was meant to ensure that houses of worship could freely choose their clergy. However, these Christian Nationalists want the ministerial exception broadened to include being able to fire employees without cause; an action that will deny that employee their employment rights.

Case in point. Gregg Tucker, a teacher at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colorado, was fired for organizing an anti-racism symposium for students. Some parents complained and threatened to pull their kids (and their tuition dollars) from the school.

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Instead of standing up for Tucker’s anti-racism message, the school fired him. When the teacher challenged this violation of his civil rights in court, the school said that Tucker was a minister (wrong) and therefore could not be held liable for discriminating against him (wrong again).

What will happen if Maine subsidizes a private Christian school that directs its “ministers” to ignore Maine’s human rights laws and a teacher refuse to break the law? Should that school have the right to fire that teacher? I think not.

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He welcomes comments at [email protected] and ffrfmaine.org.

 


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