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A Maine Catholic school says it's facing discrimination from the state over public funding

St. Dominic Academy in Auburn, Maine.
Courtesy
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St. Dominic Academy
St. Dominic Academy in Auburn, Maine.

A new lawsuit has been filed challenging Maine's restrictions on religious schools that receive public funds.

In 2021, the state legislature amended the Maine Human Rights Act, including a provision requiring religious schools to abide by anti-discrimination laws around gender identity and sexual orientation.

The law also says that schools cannot discriminate on the basis of religion, and that "to the extent that an educational institution permits religious expression, it cannot discriminate between religions in so doing."

But in a new lawsuit, Auburn's St. Dominic Academy and one family say the new rules are unconstitutional and specifically target religious schools. The school argues that in order to receive public funds, the new law would force it to require all employees use students' preferred pronouns, and to facilitate a student's efforts to change their gender identity, even if a student's parent objects to the change.

The school argues that would go against the Diocese’s commitment to respect parents’ “primordial and inalienable” “right and … duty” to educate their children.

Adele Keim, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, says the law was shaped to specifically exclude religious schools from the state's program.

"And they came up with, and the Human Rights Commission came up with, targeted changes to the Maine Human Rights Act. That would make it impossible for religious schools in Maine to take part in this program," Keim said. "And that is, when you put up — we call it a web of entangling laws, like that — directly intended to prevent religious schools from being religious. If they take part in your program, that's targeting religion."

The plaintiffs also cite a provision in the new law requiring that schools not discriminate between religions, which the school says could force it to include rabbis, imams, and Protestant preachers during chapel services.

"Diocesan schools like St. Dominic teach about religion from a Catholic perspective. While Diocesan schools welcome children from all faiths and none, families that choose these schools for their children understand and agree that they will learn about religion from a Catholic perspective," the lawsuit reads.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for Maine to exclude religious schools from a program providing state tuition money for students in towns without their own high schools. St. Dominic Academy says that were it not for the changes to the Maine Human Rights Act, it and many other Diocesan schools would apply to be included in the town tuitioning program.

A spokesperson for the Maine attorney general's office said that the office would not comment on pending litigation.

Bangor's Crosspoint Church, which operates Bangor Christian Schools, also filed a lawsuit over the new law in March.

Among its rules, the school prohibits students from identifying as a gender other than their sex assigned at birth. The school also requires students to wear clothes consistent with that sex.

In response to that suit, Frey said that "The Maine Human Rights Act is in place to protect Mainers from discrimination and the Office of the Attorney General is steadfast in upholding the law. If abiding by this state law is unacceptable to the plaintiffs, they are free to forego taxpayer funding."

So far, Maine has approved one religious school — Portland's Cheverus High School — to participate in its town tuitioning program.

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