Cheverus High School was the only religious school to apply for participation in the state’s tuition reimbursement plan and its application was approved for using taxpayer funds to send students to a religious school. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald file

Maine is ready to fund tuition for some religious school students for the first time since a Supreme Court ruling in June ordered the state to treat those schools the same as other private schools regarding tuition reimbursement.

Cheverus High School, a Jesuit college preparatory school in Portland, was the only religious school to apply for participation in the state’s tuition reimbursement plan and its application was approved by the state. All schools accepting public funds must abide by the Maine Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.

A spokesman for the Maine Department of Education confirmed on Thursday that Cheverus applied and was approved for using public taxpayer funds to send students to a religious school.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Maine law that bars the use of public dollars for tuition at religious schools, a decision that could create opportunities for school choice programs in other states.

Maine has long allowed students in towns with no public high school to put taxpayer money toward the cost of an outside school, public or private. But since 1981, the law has barred students from using those funds at religious schools.

The two Maine families suing the state in Carson v. Makin were eligible for the program but unable to spend tuition money on the religious school of their choice.

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The program had survived at least four previous legal challenges. But the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has sided with religious interests in recent rulings and was sympathetic to the plaintiffs in this case during oral arguments in December.

The opinion applies to a small number of high school students in Maine – no more than a few thousand – but could shift the balance of power in the national debate about public funding for religious education.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said he’s encouraged by the first tuition reimbursements for a religious school since the 1980s in Maine.

“We’re hopeful and encouraged that (others) might be able to find a path to participate” next year, he said.

It was not clear why Cheverus applied for the program, how many students stand to benefit, or how much public funding the school would receive.

Messages left with the school’s president, its principal and director of communications seeking an interview were not returned Thursday night. Cheverus is a Roman Catholic school but is not governed by the Diocese of Portland.

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Tuition at Cheverus for the 2022-23 school year cost $22,320, but that figure does not include the cost of books, class fees and a laptop, according to Cheverus’ website. During the 2021-22 school year, Cheverus enrolled 373 students from 50 communities located in southern Maine. The school doled out $2.8 million in financial aid, a figure that resulted in assistance to about 70 percent of its student population.

There were several lawsuits over the years since the state ended tuition reimbursements to religious schools before the Supreme Court ruled that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition for private education in towns where there are no public high schools.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision was the latest in a line of rulings by the court that have favored religion-based discrimination claims. It could fuel a renewed push for school choice programs in a number of states that have so far not directed taxpayer money to private, religious education.

Despite the victory, religious schools are taking a cautious approach after Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said all schools accepting public funds must abide by the Maine Human Rights Act.

That would include accepting gay and transgender teachers and students, which could conflict with some religious schools’ beliefs.

In the Maine case that led to the high court’s ruling, parents sued in federal court to be able to use state aid to send their children to Christian schools in Bangor and Waterville. The two schools in question, Temple Academy in Waterville and Bangor Christian Schools, have policies that discriminate on a basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, Frey has said.

 

Press Herald Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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