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Maine, Arizona High Courts Rule in Private School Choice Cases

Maine's highest court has ruled that towns may not provide a subsidy to parents who pay tuition to send their children to private religious schools.

Meanwhile, Arizona's highest court has issued an order permitting two state voucher programs that cover private religious schools to continue, but the state legislature has declined to provide any funding for the programs next year.

In the Maine case, the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously on July 1 in Joyce v. State of Maine that a state law that prohibits the use of public funds to directly pay tuition at private religious schools also covers indirect subsidies to parents who choose religious schools for their children.

The law concerns the state's "tuitioning" program, in which towns without their own high schools pay to send children to public schools in other districts or to non-religious private schools.

The case arose over a family in the town of Swan's Island, Maine, that was receiving a monthly subsidy from the town equal to the amount it was spending on tuition at a Christian school.

The state high court noted that the Maine legislature reaffirmed state policy against providing public support for tuition at religious schools after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that such aid does not necessarily violate the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

"The subsidy is simply a straw man for tuition payments by the town to the [family's] sectarian school," the Maine court said.

In Arizona, the state supreme court on June 27 issued an order allowing two voucher programs that allow state aid to be used at private religious schools for children with disabilities and those in foster care to continue in the 2008-09 school year. A state appeals court struck down the program in May, which I blogged about here.

The state high court's order appears to be a form of stay while it considers the legal merits. (I couldn't find the supreme court's order on its Web site.)

The Arizona Republic reports here that on the same day the state high court issued its order, the state legislature stripped the program of any funding for next year.

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