EXCLUSIVE – Keith and Valori Radonis were eager to send their three children to St. Dominic Academy – a prestigious co-ed Catholic school for students in grades K-12 – hoping to qualify for the state's Town Tuitioning Fund, a taxpayer-funded program reserved for students in small towns and rural areas with no available public schools to help alleviate education costs.
But the parents found a roadblock to their plans.
Amendments to the state's human rights law imposing religious neutrality on schools, as well as new nondiscrimination policies on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, have barred faith-based schools from participating in the program, making the funds contingent on their compliance.
The Radonis family and St. Dominic Academy filed a lawsuit against the state last week, arguing the amendments cut students' access to a faith-based education.
"I think that just given the fact that Carson v. Makin was decided just June of last year, this is very fresh, and you've got the same argument here where the state was told by the Supreme Court that what you are doing is unconstitutional. You are violating the free exercise clause of religion covered under the First Amendment of the Constitution," Keith Radonis told Fox News Digital in an interview Monday.
"All they've done now is removed Hurdle A and inserted Hurdle B and C to still try and prevent folks from accessing this tuition money, so it seems very similar to the previous case," he continued.
Last year, the Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling in Carson v. Makin stated that Maine could no longer withhold program funding from faith-based schools like St. Dominic Academy, arguing the practice violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor lambasted the outcome for allegedly "dismantling" separation of church and state. Chief Justice John Roberts, meanwhile, argued the state had been discriminating against religion.
"[The decision] said Maine cannot withhold this money from a family just because they happen to be religious… what's happened here is another set of unconstitutional hurdles have been put in place to prevent folks from accessing their town tuition and to send their children to the school of their choice," Keith continued.
"Even before the decision was announced, there was some maneuvering inside the highest levels of the state, between the attorney general and the commissioner of education, kind of trying to position themselves to be able to still, if you would, block [the outcome]. Basically saying, 'Even if we lose this, we're going to make sure that people of faith will never get to use this money.' But it seemed like they were trying to say, ‘OK, we’ll determine when a school is too religious.'"
One of the amendments made to the state's Human Rights Act in 2021 would require schools to be religiously "neutral," meaning the faith-based schools would be forced to be religiously neutral and express ideologies of all religions in their worship services.
"It gives the Maine Human Rights Commission—not parents or the school—the final word on how the school teaches students to live out Catholic beliefs regarding marriage, gender, and family life. As a result, faith-based schools are still being excluded from the state program to help rural families," according to a case summary from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who is representing the plaintiffs.
The Radonis family clarified that providing funding to attend faith-based schools would not equate giving money to religious institutions, but instead gives families the opportunity to choose which school works best for their children.
"Essentially, the tax dollars you pay for that education never go to a public school, are more or less refunded back to the parents, and they have the ability to use that money to go to any school that they deem fit for their child, and it is critical that folks understand it's not the state giving money to a religious institution. All they're doing is giving that person's hard-earned tax dollars back to that family to make a decision, "OK, I can't send my child to a school in my town. What school?'" Keith said.
Valori Radonis told Fox News Digital it is critical to give Maine's rural students access to as many options as possible, saying, "It's important to have that choice. It's an excellent education from these institutions. St. Dominic's School is an academically accredited school that has proven to be excellent and that should be open to all rural families. Despite the religious standing of the school.
"One size doesn't fit all and so being in a rural area where we have choices, we can fit each child, dependent on their needs, with the right school, the best choice for them. And when the state closes down options, it's not right."
The Radonis family says they want what's best for their children and remain hopeful about the outcome of the case.
Fox News' Kristine Parks contributed to this report.