Washington, D.C. On July 31, 1997, the Institute for Justice will file a lawsuit that marks a milestone in its efforts to promote parental choice in education. In Bagley v. Town of Raymond, the Institute challenges the exclusion of religious schools from Maine’s school choice program. The case could set an important precedent for educational programs in other states that discriminate against religious schools and the families that choose them for their children.
In Maine, parents who live in towns without public schools have the right to select the school that best suits their children’s educational needs. The town then pays tuition to the school that the parents choose. Parents who live in “tuitioning towns” are free to pick any school for their children-public or private, in-state or out-of-state. Any school, that is, unless it is religious. Maine law singles out religious schools, and religious schools only, for discrimination, prohibiting towns from paying tuition to any school that is “sectarian.”
Cynthia and Robert Bagley live in Raymond, Maine, a small rural town that does not operate a high school. This month, the Bagleys and four other families asked the Town of Raymond pay tuition for their sons to Cheverus High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Portland. The town denied their requests because Cheverus is a religious school. Today, these families filed a lawsuit alleging that the Maine law that prohibits parents from selecting a religious school for their children, violates the U.S. and Maine Constitutions’ guarantees of the free exercise of religion and equal protection of the laws. The lawsuit will be filed in Cumberland Country Superior Court.
One of the Institute for Justice’s primary missions is to advance parental choice in education. Currently, the Institute for Justice represents clients in all four ongoing cases (including litigation in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Vermont) that present the crucial question of whether religious schools may participate in publicly-funded school choice programs. All of the Institute for Justice’s school choice cases seek to vindicate the principle that it is constitutional to permit religious schools to participate in neutral school choice programs where public funds are spent in religious schools only as the result of participating parents’ independent decisions, not by decisions of the government.
School choice advocates and opponents alike agree that, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court needs to decide the important issues raised by school choice programs, thereby dissipating the constitutional cloud that hovers over educational reform efforts. This lawsuit will present the Supreme Court with yet another opportunity to do just that, so that school children everywhere are able to take advantage of the full panoply of educational opportunities.