City of Aroostook could shut down Catholic education during public school hours

FORT KENT, Maine – The Fort Kent school system in northern Aroostook County is debating whether to allow students to continue taking Catholic religion classes during regular public school hours after some board members questioned this practice.

Kindergarten through fifth grade students who have parental permission attend the weekly 45-minute sessions, which take place during school hours at the St. Louis Parish Faith Formation Center next door to the school. Those not present remain in school classrooms, but no new material is taught until students return from religion classes.

Fort Kent is primarily a French-speaking Acadian Catholic community on the Canadian border, and allow public school students to attend faith formation classes – instruction in the Catholic faith that leads to First Communion in the church – is a long-standing tradition. At a time when Maine is already facing a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court over its ban on funding students who attend faith-based schools, this latest discussion highlights the ongoing debate over separation from the Church and of State.

Currently, 203 out of 356, or 57%, Fort Kent elementary students are taking religious education classes.

“When students are sent away for faith formation classes, the other students who remain cannot have new learning experiences since their classmates are gone,” Superintendent Ben Sirois said. “With the pandemic highlighting the need to maximize learning opportunities, the [SAD 27] council was simply asking if there was another way to support faith formation and maximize learning.

The district does not pay for religious education classes, which are permitted by Maine law. Public schools can grant up to one hour per week as long as there is no additional cost to the local school unit, Sirois said.

The parish staffs the courses at the Faith Formation Center. If classes were moved to an after-school program, a public school classroom could be used at no cost to the parish or district, and students could use the late bus already in place for other programs, said Sirois.

The St. Louis Parish Faith Formation Center in Fort Kent is where some elementary students go to learn about Catholicism during school hours. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

Claire Nichols still remembers the feeling of isolation she felt for not taking Catholic faith education classes like the majority of her classmates did when she attended Eagle Elementary School. Lake in the St. John Valley decades ago.

“Because I was raised Protestant, my family didn’t feel comfortable putting me around because he was targeting Catholicism. I always felt left out and sometimes had to sit by the desk because there was no room for me,” she said.

Although Eagle Lake Elementary School has since closed, the remaining elementary school in SAD District 27, Fort Kent Elementary School, still offers Catholic faith education classes.

Nichols’ own children do not attend the classes, but rather an after-school program called the Good News Club, which she says belongs to a Christian sect different from the Catholic faith.

“I strongly believe in supporting all religions equally and I’m not sure that release time during the school day provides the same treatment across the board,” Nichols said.

Erica Murphy of Fort Kent said her two adult sons, now 18 and 20, did not attend the religious training program. She said in her experience, students who don’t participate in the program often feel like they’ve done something wrong by not participating.

“I don’t believe under any circumstances that religious education during public school hours makes sense unless children are taught world religion, and not just a form of religious beliefs,” Murphy said. “If parents think their children would benefit from a Catholic religious education, then classes could and should be held after school or in the evening.”

Jill Soucie of Winterville, mother of a 6-year-old Fort Kent student, wants religious education classes to continue during the school day. Winterville is about a 30 minute drive from the elementary school.

“After school, it’s too late for religion class for him because he’s too tired. We cannot transport him to Fort Kent to participate, so without release time he will miss his spiritual education,” she said. “Grayson is learning the basics of the Catholic faith, but also about kindness, sharing and kindness. It is an additional element of his education.

Acknowledging that the community is overwhelmingly an Acadian Catholic community, she said she didn’t want to see the tradition discarded because of a few people who think God is not part of education.

“In this time of hate and separation, why not keep all the kids together and educate them about different kinds of religions, different kinds of people, and welcoming everyone,” Murphy said.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland could not be reached for comment.

The SAD 27 school board will discuss Monday whether to continue the religious release program or move religious education classes to after-school hours.

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