Edward T. Gignoux United States Courthouse T Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — A small group of Maine parents that is backed by the U.S. Department of Justice argued in federal court on Monday that the state should allow public tuition dollars to be used for some students to attend religious schools.

The case, which hinges on interpretation of a state tuition policy for students in districts that don’t have a high school, arrived in U.S. District Court in Portland for oral arguments. The state has long agreed to allow payment of tuition for a private school, but not a religious one, in such districts.

The families argued through their lawyers that denying tuition for religious schools violates their constitutional rights. Their attorney, Tim Keller of Institute For Justice, said the case is about “a parent’s decision of where to send their child to school.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is among the groups arguing in favor of the state’s policy. Legal director Zachary Heiden said after the case adjourned that courts have consistently upheld it.

“Maine’s tuition program is constitutional. Nothing about the program has changed,” he said, adding the state “decided long ago against funding private religious education with taxpayer dollars.”

The federal justice department filed a statement earlier this month in support of the parents’ lawsuit. The department said Maine has demonstrated “discrimination” against religious schools through the tuition program.

Judge Brock Hornby said he would try to reach a decision in the case as soon as possible. A swift decision would be helpful, because the next academic year begins in only a couple of months, said lawyers for the families.

During oral arguments, Hornby asked lawyers for both sides to address the Maine Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the Portland Press Herald.

The Maine case concerns three families from Glenburn, Orrington and Palermo. They want the state to pay for their children to attend Christian schools. The families from Orrington and Glenburn have children who attend Bangor Christian Schools. The student in the Palermo family attends Temple Academy in Waterville.

The Press Herald reported that court documents filed in the case state that Bangor Christian will expel students who are gay, lesbian or identify as a gender different from the one printed on their birth certificate. Temple Academy will not admit students with gay or lesbian parents, according to court documents. Neither school hires people who are LGBTQ, the documents state.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs told the judge that religious schools can require that students and staff members comply with the tenets of their organization, according to the Press Herald.

The national ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have also gotten involved in the case in an attempt to uphold Maine’s current tuition policy.