As part of the settlements, state and local government officials have agreed that excluding Vermont’s religious private schools from the program is unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Religious private schools in Vermont will now be allowed to use a state tuition assistance program that previously excluded them, after the state settled two lawsuits over the matter Nov. 30.
Vermont’s Town Tuition program provides tuition benefits to students who live in towns without public schools, and it previously allowed payments to secular private schools but not religious schools. As part of the settlements, state and local government officials have agreed that excluding Vermont’s religious private schools from the program is unconstitutional and unenforceable.
The Diocese of Burlington, which is statewide and serves some 2,300 students in 13 schools, was a party to both lawsuits, as were several private school families.
“We are pleased that our schools are finally included with other private and public schools as choices for students who do not have a school in their city,” Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington said in a statement to CNA.
The lawsuits were brought by lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal group. Thomas McCormick, a longtime Vermont attorney who works with the ADF Attorney Network, is acting as local attorney on behalf of the families and the Diocese of Burlington.
On Wednesday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont issued a stipulated judgment implementing the settlement agreement. Under the settlements, complaining families who applied for tuition but were wrongfully denied by their school districts will be reimbursed for the tuition they paid out of pocket, the ADF said. School districts will directly reimburse complaining families; other families will have the option of seeking reimbursement from school districts. The state of Vermont and school districts will also pay the families’ attorney fees, the ADF said.
Vermont’s school choice program dates back to 1869. The state has excluded religious schools from the program since 1999, following a state Supreme Court ruling that state funds cannot be used to “support a place of worship” under the Vermont Constitution. lawsuits against the state were filed more than two decades later, in 2020.
The settlements in these cases come in light of a landmark decision rendered by the United States Supreme Court in June in the case Carson v. makin. In that decision, the court ruled 6 to 3 that Maine’s policy prohibiting students in a student aid program from using their aid to attend “cult” schools violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
In that ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that having chosen to fund private schools through its aid program, Maine cannot disqualify certain private schools solely because they are religious. The state “pays tuition for some students in private schools – as long as the schools are not religious. This is discrimination against religion. A state’s anti-establishment interest does not justify laws that exclude certain members of the community from an otherwise generally available public good because of their religious exercise.
Other recent Supreme Court cases have yielded favorable results for school choice advocates. In its decision of June 2020 Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the court struck down as a violation of the free exercise clause a state scholarship program that excluded religious schools. And in 2017, the court found in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer that a playground owned by a church may be eligible for a public benefit program.
#Vermont #religious #schools #state #aid #settling #lawsuit