St. Dominic Academy v. Makin
Catholic schools in Maine long provided an accessible education for rural families through the state’s tuition assistance program. Unfortunately, in 1982, faith-based schools, including St. Dominic Academy, were excluded from the program because they are religious. The Supreme Court overturned Maine’s religious ban in 2022; but Maine amended the tuition assistance program under the guise of a “human rights” law to keep schools like St. Dominic out of the program and unable to serve Maine families. Today, even though Maine allows families to use government tuition money to send their kids to private boarding schools in Massachusetts and pays tuition to public schools in Quebec, it won’t let rural Maine families chose religious schools like St. Dominic.
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Commitment to Catholic education
Keith and Valori Radonis are organic farmers in rural Maine who want to send their children to schools that uphold their Catholic beliefs. Both Keith and Valori were raised in devout Catholic homes, and they believe it is their religious responsibility to help to plant, nurture, and cultivate the seed of faith in own their children. For years, Catholic schools in the Diocese of Portland—including St. Dominic Academy—played a vital role in assisting parents like the Radonises educate their children through the state’s tuition assistance program. This program allows parents like the Radonises who live in rural school districts to educate their children at private schools where there is no public school nearby.
The Diocese of Portland’s schools have long offered outstanding academics, graduating high-achieving classes of students that excel on standardized tests and go on to elite colleges and universities. Inspired by Catholic Social Tradition, they also teach students to devote themselves to serving others from all walks of life. For example, students in the diocese have raised money for food kitchens, cared for the elderly at senior homes, joined mission trips to Mississippi to help rebuild homes devastated by hurricanes, sponsored donation drives for asylum seekers, hosted baby showers to aid local mothers, and raised money to support veterans and their families.
Unfortunately, in 1982, Maine abruptly excluded faith-based schools like St. Dominic from the program simply because they were religious. Maine still paid tuition for Maine students attending out-of-state boarding schools and public schools in Quebec, but not for Maine students who wanted to go to religious schools located in Maine. In the decades following, these schools were unable to partner with rural Maine families.
Maine skirts the law to bar funding to religious education
In 2021, three families brought a challenge to Maine’s religious education ban in Carson v. Makin. The Supreme Court took the case, and the following summer a six-Justice majority struck the state law down, paving the way for St. Dominic and many other faith-based schools to begin serving rural Maine families again.
However, in the lead up to the Carson case at the Supreme Court, officials in Maine saw the writing on the wall. Anticipating that the Court would strike down Maine’s ban on religious schools, Maine passed a new law to keep the religious schools out covertly. Maine’s new law requires schools that receive tuition funds to allow all religious expression equally, which prevents schools like St. Dominic from carrying out their ministry of educating students in the Catholic faith. And it gives the Maine Human Rights Commission—not parents or the school—the final word on how the school teaches students to live out Catholic beliefs regarding marriage, gender, and family life. As a result, faith-based schools are still being excluded from the state program to help rural families.
The law protects faith-based schools and the families they serve
Maine is punishing schools like St. Dominic because of their commitment to providing a holistic education in accordance with their beliefs. It is also punishing rural families who want to use the tuition program to send their children to faith-based schools. The Supreme Court has consistently and recently affirmed that states cannot cut off generally available funding from faith-based schools and families because they are religious. Faith-based schools should have the ability to partner with parents who want the best education for their children.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
Education: Religious schools should be able to participate in publicly available programs, and religious school students should be able to participate in these programs on equal footing as students who attend non-religious schools.