January 10, 2022

In Vermont, Religious Schools Are Left Out in the Cold

Neal Hardin

In 2017, Alliance Defending Freedom won a case at the Supreme Court, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. In this case, ADF represented a preschool that wanted to use a publicly available grant to resurface its playground to make it safer for kids. However, it was denied the grant because it was a religious school. The Court held that a state cannot deny “a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character.” Thus, denying a publicly available grant to a preschool simply because it was religious was ruled unconstitutional.

Again, in 2020, the Supreme Court further ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that a state tuition tax credit program could not be shut down simply because it might help students and parents afford tuition at a private religious school. The Court wrote, "[a] State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious."

The Supreme Court has made it clear that people of faith can’t be treated like second-class citizens and denied access to publicly available benefits simply because they are religious.

But apparently, officials in Vermont keep missing the memo.

In Vermont, not every town has a public high school. In order to make sure that every student has access to a quality high school education, Vermont uses the Town Tuition Program, where towns provide funding for students to attend a public school in another town or enroll at a private school. This program has been around since 1869, making it the oldest school choice program in the country. However, because of a misguided court ruling in 1999, there’s been one exception to who these funds can go to: the school chosen by the parents or students can’t be religious.

See how four Catholic high schools, four families, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington are fighting this unjust discrimination with the help of ADF.

Even after the rulings from the Supreme Court, yet again, in 2021, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals twice ruled in favor of our clients to halt Vermont school districts’ unjust discrimination. Despite that, Vermont officials indicated they would continue digging in their heels and discriminating against religious students, parents, and schools once the temporary injunction expires.

These government officials don’t seem to get it. While some might worry about government money going to religious schools, equal treatment of religious schools doesn’t constitute an endorsement of religion. On the other hand, unequal treatment of religious schools, parents, and students is unjust and unconstitutional.

The parents who want to use the Town Tuition Program to send their children to a Catholic school like Rice Memorial High School are taxpayers just like everyone else. And like any other parents, their concern first and foremost is for the well-being of their children and seeking out the best education they can find for them. Schools like Rice Memorial are providing high-quality education at significantly lower tuition rates than the average rate for Vermont high school students. Governments have no business in discriminating against religious private schools simply because they are religious.

Students should have every opportunity to pursue their educational goals, and the state should not punish those students or their parents for their educational choices. In the end, leaving religious schools out in the cold only hurts the children of Vermont.


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