St. Dominic Academy in Auburn filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Mills Administration and the Maine Human Rights Commission alleging that state has engaged in religious discrimination against the Catholic school.
The lawsuit names Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin as well as Maine Human Rights Commissioners Jefferson Ashby, Edward David, Ann O’Brien, Mark Walker, and Thomas Douglas, and alleges multiple human rights violations.
Joining St. Dominic Academy, which is run by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland, are Maine parents Keith and Valori Radonis.
The lawsuit is not the first time the Mills Administration, and Makin in particular, have been sued for religious discrimination.
The latest case comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s related June 2022 ruling in Carson v. Makin.
In that decision, the Court struck down a Maine law requiring schools be “nonsectarian” in order to be eligible to for the state’s Town Tuitioning program, arguing that the provision violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Town Tuitioning is a longstanding policy in Maine wherein students residing in districts without a public school are given the opportunity to attend the public or private school of their family’s choosing.
Immediately following the Supreme Court’s release of the Carson v. Makin decision, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey issued a statement doubling down on the State’s position that religious schools should be excluded from the Town Tuitioning program because of their religious beliefs:
“The education provided by the schools at issue here is inimical to a public education. They promote a single religion to the exclusion of all others, refuse to admit gay and transgender children, and openly discriminate in hiring teachers and staff. One school teaches children that the husband is to be the leader of the household. While parents have the right to send their children to such schools, it is disturbing that the Supreme Court found that parents also have the right to force the public to pay for an education that is fundamentally at odds with values we hold dear.”
Also in the statement, Frey vowed to explore ways to avoid allowing religious schools to participate in the program.
“I intend to explore with Governor Mills’ administration and members of the Legislature statutory amendments to address the Court’s decision and ensure that public money is not used to promote discrimination, intolerance, and bigotry,” he said.
The lawsuit filed this week now seeks “declaratory and injunctive relief against Maine’s ongoing efforts to ‘outmaneuver’ the Supreme Court and continue to exclude religious schools from the program.”
“Plaintiffs request that this Court enforce the constitutional rule clearly established in Carson, enjoin the unconstitutional conditions that Maine officials continue to impose on the program, and allow the Diocese, St. Dominic, and the Radonis family to move forward without delay,” the filing states.
The filing alleges that alterations made to the Maine Human Rights Act in 2021 served as a means to undermine the Court’s ruling in Carson v. Makin by continuing to exclude religious schools from the Town Tuitioning program.
In 2021, the Legislature added “religious neutrality” language to the Maine Human Rights Act, stating that “to the extent that an educational institution permits religious expression, it cannot discriminate between religions in so doing.”
The filing also points to the addition of a “new religious nondiscrimination requirement.” In light of the 2021 amendments to the Act, schools are now barred from discriminating on the basis of religion “in any academic, extracurricular, research, occupational training or other program or activity.”
The Legislature also removed a clause exempting “any education facility owned, controlled or operated by a bona fide religious corporation, association or society” from the provision prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The plaintiffs in St. Dominic Academy v. Makin make claims against Makin for nine counts of violating the First Amendment.
Among these counts are accusations of “religious targeting,” prohibiting the “free exercise of religion” through the “categorical exclusion from otherwise available government benefits,” engaging in “excessive entanglement with religion,” and “compell[ing] speech and expressive association.”
The count filed against Makin for violating the Fourteenth Amendment claims that Maine’s “application of the Act to exclude religious schools like St. Dominic from the program penalizes” the school, as well as the Radonis family, for their religious beliefs.
Among other things, St. Dominic Academy is requesting that the Court declare the provisions mentioned in the filing unconstitutional as applied in this case and prohibit the State of Maine from applying these provisions to the school should they accept public funds through the Town Tuitioning program.
Last month, the Mills Administration suffered a setback in court when an appeals court panel determined that a lower court had erred in dismissing a complaint of religious discrimination in a vaccine mandates case.
That panel said a First Amendment complaint of religious discrimination against Mills could be valid because her administration permitted vaccine mandate exemptions for secular purposes, but not for religious purposes.