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Lawsuit Challenges Maine's Law Barring Taxpayer Funding For Religious Schools

Three Maine families are challenging a state law that prohibits religious schools from receiving publicly funded tuition reimbursements.In their lawsuit against Maine Education Commissioner Robert Hasson, the families say the 1981 law is unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Troy Nelson lives in the town of Palermo, which doesn't have a high school, so the town pays tuition to send its students to surrounding public and private secondary schools. Nelson's daughter attends the private, secular Erskine Academy in South China, but his son attends Waterville's Christian Temple Academy.

Nelson says his family would like to send both children to Temple but can't afford paying the tuition on their own. "They taught respect and discipline," Nelson says. "It's just a good atmosphere for a kid to learn in."

The other two families are from Orrington and Glenburn. In their lawsuit filed Tuesday, the families argue that a state law barring religious schools from receiving reimbursements from the towns violates their religious freedom.

The families are represented by the Institute for Justice, a group in Virginia that previously filed two similar suits in Maine. The group lost both cases. But attorney Tim Keller says a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in a similar case gives him hope.

"With that precedent now on the books, the federal courts in Maine will be required to follow the U.S. Supreme Court precedent and will strike down the exclusion of religious schools," Keller says.

More than 30 states have laws or constitutional amendments barring public funding of religious institutions. A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education declined to comment on the case.