A federal appeals court has ruled that a student voucher program in Maine would violate the constitutional separation of church and state if it paid tuition to religious schools.

Opponents of government vouchers hailed the decision issued in Boston Thursday as a major victory because the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals became the highest court in the country to rule on the issue to date. Similar cases have yielded mixed rulings in state supreme courts. The latest ruling, which is binding in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico, appeared to make it more likely that the Supreme Court will eventually take up the constitutional issues surrounding vouchers.

Since 1981, Maine has excluded sectarian schools from a state voucher program for students who live in rural areas that do not have public schools. Unlike voucher programs in operation in Milwaukee and Cleveland, Maine sends tuition payments directly to private schools, instead of giving the money to parents.

The appeals court, upholding a lower court's judgment that the Maine program does not discriminate based on religion, said that "approving direct payments of tuition by the state to sectarian schools represents a quantum leap that we are unwilling to take."