SAD 27 school board members David Soucy (left) and Tanya Voisine, at a meeting in April. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

FORT KENT, Maine — Maine’s singular Catholic religion class held during public school hours will remain in place after the school board voted unanimously on Monday to keep it.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grades who attend Fort Kent Elementary School and have parental permission attend the 45-minute weekly sessions, which take place during school hours at the St. Louis Parish Faith Formation Center next to the school.

Those who don’t attend stay in the school classrooms, but no new material is taught until the religion class students return. Several board members in January had questioned whether it would benefit learners to move the faith formation program to after school, Superintendent Ben Sirois said.

Fort Kent is predominantly a Catholic Acadian French community on the Canadian border, and allowing students from public school to attend faith formation classes — instruction on the Catholic faith that leads to first communion in the church — is a longtime tradition. At a time when Maine already is facing a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court over its ban on funding students who attend religion-based schools, this latest discussion highlights the continued debate about the separation of church and state.

Currently, 203 out of 356, or 57 percent, of the Fort Kent elementary students go to the faith formation classes. The district does not pay for them, and they are authorized under Maine law. Public schools may allow for up to one hour per week as long as it results in no additional costs to the local school unit, Sirois said.  

No members of the public chose to participate in the public discussion portion of Monday’s school board meeting.

Superintendent Ben Sirois provided the board with results of a survey the St. John Vianney Parish sent to parents of children who attend the faith formation program that indicated the program should remain. Sirois said 95 of the 99 who sent in the survey were in favor of keeping it.

The board discussed ways to improve the religious release experience for teachers and students left behind.

Sirois suggested possibly combining several classes to attend the program at once, with teachers at the elementary school taking turns supervising the students who stay behind. By sharing the load, the teachers could take turns using the faith formation time as a free period to catch up on work.

Board member Sarah Ashley expressed concern that the students left behind are not idle during the religious release period, and perhaps find ways they could benefit from other moral instruction.

Board member Shannon Lugdon suggested the students who remain at the school be taught ethics or life skills.

“We don’t want to offer programming that will entice faith formation learners to now withdraw from faith formation because they want to stay for whatever program we’re offering so we have to be careful,” Sirois said.

David Soucy, who was elected to the board in March, made the successful motion to maintain the faith formation program as is, and to direct Sirois to explore other options for students who do not participate in the program.

Portland Diocese communications director Dave Guthro said in an email Tuesday the diocese is thrilled with the board’s decision to maintain the faith formation program.

“The way in which the school system and faith formation program work together to offer this programming is a shining example of how these dedicated individuals are truly committed to enhancing the overall learning experience and positive development of young people. It’s very inspiring,” Guthro said.