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The History Behind the Next Landmark School Choice Case

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, with the public school system in crisis and teachers’ unions hell-bent on preventing the return of students to the classroom, parents are clamoring for alternatives to the educational status quo. The state of Maine, meanwhile, is hell-bent on denying them those alternatives: The state, which has a tuition assistance program for students in towns without a public school, flatly bars students from using their aid to attend schools that offer religious instruction. A new petition filed with the U.S. Supreme Court seeks to change that.

Maine’s tradition of hostility toward religion is as old as the state itself. Yet the animus used to be reserved for a few unlucky faiths. In 1853, for example, 16 Catholic students were expelled from their public school in Ellsworth. Their offense? Under the counsel of their pastor, Father John Bapst, they refused to read from the King James — or Protestant — version of the Bible.

Bridget Donahoe challenged her expulsion, arguing that public school officials could not compel her to engage in Protestant religious exercises. Her case reached Maine’s highest court, but not before an anti-Catholic backlash swept Ellsworth. One of the town’s Catholic churches was bombed; the other, targeted with arson. Father Bapst’s bishop, fearing for the priest’s safety, ordered him to leave.

Several months later, Maine’s high court ruled against Bridget in an opinion dripping with anti-Catholic nativism. “Large masses of foreign population are among us, weak in the midst of our strength,” it asserted, and they must “imbibe the liberal spirit of our laws and institutions.” In “no other way” can that “be so readily and thoroughly accomplished,” the opinion concluded, “as through the medium of the public schools.”

But many areas of Maine were — and still are — short on public schools to dispense the “liberal spirit.” Thus, the state has long operated a tuition assistance program. If a student lives in a school district that neither operates its own public high school nor contracts with a school to educate its resident children, the town must pay tuition for the student to attend the school of her parents’ choice. Families may choose public or private schools, whether inside Maine or outside the state.

Since 1980, however, Maine has prohibited families from choosing schools the state deems “sectarian” — specifically, those that offer religious instruction. The same state that banished Bridget Donahoe from a public school for adhering to her faith today prohibits students receiving tuition assistance from selecting private schools that align with their faith.

Seem unconstitutional? It is.

Read more at National Catholic Register

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