An Orono church claims the Hermon School Committee discriminated against the congregation when the board refused to enter into a year-long lease so the church could use the high school for services.
An attorney for the district denied the board acted illegally and said the offer of a month-to-month agreement still stands.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school districts cannot refuse to rent space to houses of worship if they also rent out space to community groups such as scout troops, community theater companies and political organizations during non-school hours.
The Pines Church claims that the board rejected the one-year lease because of its conservative religious beliefs concerning sexuality and sexual identity. The board’s Portland attorney, Melissa Hewey, denied that in a March 27 response to the claim.
The church, which holds services at the Spotlight Cinema, last fall approached school Superintendent Micah Grant about using the high school auditorium, cafeteria and two classrooms for Sunday services.
In December, the board voted 4-1 to offer a month-to-month rental but rejected the idea of a year-long lease, citing concerns about the number of people using the building and a shortage of custodial staff.
The non-denominational church, represented by Advocates for Faith & Freedom with offices in California and Arkansas, sent a notice of claim dated March 16 to Grant and the board. A notice of claim is the first step in the possible filing of a lawsuit.
The church is seeking an undisclosed amount of restitution and an acknowledgment from the board that it discriminated against the Pine Church and its pastor, Matt Goia.
Goia has said that a year-long lease would allow the church to better plan and budget for its future than a month-to-month arrangement, which is the agreement with the movie theater.
The church claims the board’s rejection of a year-long lease violated protections under the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the accommodation guarantees in the Maine Human Rights Act. The church’s attorney, Mariah Gondeiro, said that the board discriminated against the church because it subscribes to a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Board member Christopher McLaughlin, elected in June, cast the sole dissenting vote in December but declined to explain why at the time. The discrimination claim is based on a Nov. 8 letter he sent the church asking about its beliefs on same-sex marriage, abortion, gender affirming medical care, conversion therapy for LGBTQ people, and sex education for youth.
“The district’s decision here was neither tolerant nor respectful of the church’s religious beliefs,” the church’s attorney claimed. “The board gave ‘every appearance’ of adjudicating the church’s lease proposal based on
the church’s beliefs regarding homosexuality, abortion, and other political and religious issues.”
Gondeiro accused the board of offering leases to other groups but not to the Pines Church.
In her response to the claim, Hewey said the district rents space at its schools but has no long-term leases with any organizations.
“The Hermon School Department has treated the Pines Church no
differently than any other entity that has asked to use space in the school,” she said. “The school department regularly allows community organizations to use space in the school when it is not being used for school-related purposes — an offer it made to your client. It does not, however, obligate itself to devote space in the school to any outside organization for a lengthy term. The Pines Church is no different.”
Gioia founded the church in 2021. He moved with his wife, Jess, and six children from Colorado to Maine during the pandemic to plant an independent Evangelical church in Greater Bangor. The family settled in Hermon and their school-aged children attend Hermon schools.
The church offered to pay the district $1,000 a week in rent for use of the high school.