Facts of the Case

Provided by Oyez

The State of Maine relies on local school administrative units (SAUs) to ensure that every school-age child in the state has access to a free education. Not every SAU operates its own public secondary school. To meet the state requirements, an SAU without its own public secondary school may either (1) contract with a secondary school to provide school privileges or (2) pay the tuition of a secondary school at which a particular student is accepted. In either circumstance, the secondary school must be either a public school or an “approved” private school.


To be an “approved” school, a private school must meet the state’s compulsory attendance requirements (which can be demonstrated by accreditation by a New England association of schools and colleges or by approval by the Maine Department of Education), and it must be “nonsectarian in accordance with the First Amendment.”


The Carsons, Gillises, and Nelsons live in SAUs that do not operate a public secondary school of their own but instead provide tuition assistance to parents who send their children to an “approved” private school. The three families opted to send their children to private schools that are accredited but do not meet the nonsectarian requirement because they are religiously affiliated. Because the schools are not “approved,” they do not qualify for tuition assistance. The families filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the “nonsectarian” requirement violates the Constitution on its face and as applied. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court granted judgment to the State and denied judgment to the plaintiffs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed, noting that it had twice before rejected similar challenges, and even though the U.S. Supreme Court had decided two relevant cases in the interim, those cases do not produce a different outcome here.


  1. Does a state law prohibiting students participating in an otherwise generally available student-aid program from choosing to use their aid to attend schools that provide religious, or “sectarian,” instruction violate the Religion Clauses or Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution?