The church claims the law making schools that take tuition from towns without high schools accept LGBTQ students and staff violates the U.S. Constitution.
Crosspoint Church has sued the state over public funding for students that attend the high school at Bangor Christian Schools, operated by the church. The lawsuit challenges the law that requires schools that receive public funding to abide by the Maine Human Rights Act. Credit: Courtesy of the First Liberty Institute

A Bangor church whose affiliated schools won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in June that lifted a ban on public funding for religious schools has sued Maine officials over its inability to accept that money unless it abides by the Maine Human Rights Act.

On Monday, Crosspoint Baptist Church sued Maine’s commissioner of education and members of the Maine Human Rights Commission in U.S. District Court in Bangor. 

The church claims the law — which requires schools that take tuition from towns without high schools to accept students and hire employees who are LBGTQ — violates the U.S. Constitution.

The church, formerly known as Bangor Baptist Church, operates Bangor Christian Schools with students from pre-kindergarten age through grade 12 on outer Broadway in Bangor. Tuition for high school students is $6,200 per year.

“Maine lost at the U.S. Supreme Court just last year but is not getting the message that religious discrimination is illegal,” Lea Patterson, counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement issued Tuesday. “Maine’s new law imposes special burdens on religious schools in order to keep them out of the school choice program. Government punishing religious schools for living out their religious beliefs is not only unconstitutional, it is wrong.”  

First Liberty, a conservative law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and Texas, represented the parents in the case that went to the Supreme Court and took four years to resolve. 

Patterson said she did not know if the new case would take as long as that one did to resolve, but federal judges in Maine and the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals supported the ban on public funding for religious schools.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said that religious schools that do not want to abide by the Maine Human Rights should not seek public funding.

“All Mainers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, whether it be in their workplace, their housing or in their classrooms,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “The Maine Human Rights Act is in place to protect Mainers from discrimination and the Office of the Attorney General is steadfast in upholding the law. If abiding by this state law is unacceptable to the plaintiffs, they are free to forego taxpayer funding.”

Crosspoint Baptist claims that 28 of the 92 students enrolled this school year at Bangor Christian High School live in the tuitioning towns of Bradford, Glenburn, Levant, Orrington and Veazie. The church pays 95 percent of tuition for the eight children of Crosspoint and school employees to attend Bangor Christian this year at a cost of more than $47,000.

An Act to Improve Consistency in Terminology and within the Maine Human Rights Act went into effect in October 2021 while the school funding was pending before the nation’s high court. It repealed the provision that exempted religious schools from abiding by the Maine Human Rights Act if its terms violated its religious beliefs, according to the lawsuit. The complaint calls the act “a poison pill.”

“By narrowing the religious exemption for the sexual orientation and gender identity provisions, the poison pill operates to deter religious schools from participating in the tuitioning program if they hold disfavored religious beliefs, including teaching from a particular religious perspective or operating in accordance with traditional beliefs about the nature of marriage and sexuality,” the complaint said.

The lawsuit claims the law prevents Bangor Christian from teaching and following its religious tenets if it accepts LGBTQ students. The complaint argues the school can’t require that students adhere to a code of conduct consistent with the school’s statement of faith if it accepts public funds.

The lawsuit is seeking a declaratory judgment that the religion, sexual orientation and gender identity provisions of the law are unconstitutional, and an injunction prohibiting the state from enforcing its provision, which include a $20,000 fine for a first violation and a $50,000 fine for a second.

Maine allowed public funding for religious schools until the early 1980s under the law that allows municipalities to pay tuition to school districts with high schools if they do not have their own. 

The practice stopped after Attorney General Richard Cohen, a Republican, issued an opinion finding that public funding for religious schools ­violated the First Amendment. That was overturned last year in a 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court, which said it violated the right to the free exercise of religion.

The new lawsuit has been expected as a followup to the Carson v. Makin case since just one religious school, Cheverus High School, in Maine agreed to accept tuition students and abide by the Maine Human Rights Act. 

The Portland co-educational Catholic high school is run by an independent board and not by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland that operates schools, but has not applied for public funds for students due to the requirement.