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Judge denies Bangor religious school emergency relief from Maine discrimination law

Bangor Christian Schools sophomore Olivia Carson, 15, of Glenburn, Maine, left, stands with her mother Amy while getting dropped off on the first day of school on August 28, 2018 in Bangor, Maine.
Gabor Degre
/
BDN
Bangor Christian Schools sophomore Olivia Carson, 15, of Glenburn, Maine, left, stands with her mother Amy while getting dropped off on the first day of school on August 28, 2018 in Bangor, Maine.

A federal judge in Maine has declined to grant a religious school in Bangor emergency relief from a state law that prohibits discrimination by schools that accept public funding.

Crosspoint Church, which operates Bangor Christian Schools, sued the state of Maine last year. The church challenged a three-year-old state law barring religious schools that receive public funds from discriminating on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The 2021 law was a preemptive response from state lawmakers in anticipation of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of Maine's town tuitioning program, which once excluded religious schools from participation. One year later, a Supreme Court ruling opened the door for approved religious schools to receive public tuition funds.

In its lawsuit, Crosspoint argued that the 2021 law violates the school's exercise of free speech, and attorneys sought a preliminary injunction from the court.

But a federal district judge denied that request.

"The court determines that the educational antidiscrimination provisions do not violate the free exercise clause because they are neutral, generally applicable and rationally related to a legitimate government interest," Judge John Woodcock wrote in his decision, released Tuesday. "The court concludes further that the educational provisions do not violate the free speech clause because they regulate conduct, not speech."

Still, Woodcock acknowledged that Crosspoint has raised important constitutional questions and said the case likely has a longer legal trajectory, potentially before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Government punishing religious schools for living out their religious beliefs is not only unconstitutional, it is wrong," Lea Patterson, an attorney with the First Liberty Institute representing the church, said Tuesday in a statement. "Maine excluded religious schools from its school choice program for over 40 years, but the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that such religious discrimination must end. We look forward to appealing this decision and presenting our case to the Court of Appeals."

Maine's anti-discrimination protections will remain in place as litigation continues.