June 2, 2021

Victory! Court Rules VT Can’t Discriminate Against Students at Religious Schools

By
Caroline Roberts

In 1869, Vermont launched its Town Tuition Program, the oldest school choice program in the country.

The program allows for students who live in towns without public schools to receive tuition to attend a school of their choice, whether it be a private school or a public school in another town.

But when families decide to send their children to religious private schools, their towns refuse to provide them the tuition benefit. And this has been going on for 21 years.

That’s why the families of four high school girls who should’ve received benefits from their towns to attend a school of their choice are standing up against the program. These families would like to take part in the town tuition program in order to send their students to Rice Memorial High School, a Catholic school operated by the Diocese of Burlington. But the state bars them from participating in the program because Rice is a Catholic school.

With the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, these families filed a federal lawsuit against the State of Vermont in September. Thankfully, today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that these families should have equal access to the same public benefits that everyone else gets.

If benefits extend generally to all schools except those that are religious, that’s unequal treatment.

And it’s this kind of discriminatory treatment that the courts have repeatedly ruled unconstitutional. In 2017 for example, the Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer that the government cannot exclude religious schools from public benefit programs simply because of their religious affiliation. And again in 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that students at religious schools cannot be barred from government scholarship programs on the basis of their religious identity.

Vermont’s exclusion of high schools like Rice from its program does a disservice to students. Over 90 percent of Rice’s student body goes on to pursue higher education, far higher than the national and state averages, and Rice offers its students a diverse curriculum, including numerous AP classes and classes in the arts.

Additionally, Vermont’s school districts would save thousands of dollars for every student they send to Rice. Rice’s tuition is less than $12,000 per year, while most other private and public schools cost the districts $5,000-$6000 more!

Perhaps more importantly, though, Vermont’s exclusion of religious schools from its voucher program does a disservice to students because it’s unconstitutional and discriminatory.

If Vermont extends certain benefits to students who want to attend secular private schools, it has a constitutional obligation to extend those same benefits to students who wish to attend religious schools.

The Supreme Court outlined this principle in its 2017 ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote: No state can deny “a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character.”

Thankfully, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit put a stop to this unequal treatment. And now families in Vermont who want their children to receive an education at a religious school can do so on the same basis as other families.

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Now families in Vermont who want their children to receive an education at a religious school can do so on the same basis as other families.

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