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Parents, Diocese of Burlington sue Vermont for religious discrimination in education

State officials provide tuition vouchers for students who select public or private secular schools but not private religious schools

Published On: 9/28/2020

Related Case: A.H. v. French


BURLINGTON, Vt. – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a student, her parents, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington filed a federal lawsuit against Vermont officials Wednesday for discriminating against students and denying them tuition vouchers because they attend religious high schools.

Vermont maintains a Town Tuition Program, which provides educational vouchers for students who live in towns without public schools. Towns that pay tuition for their students instead of maintaining a public high school are called “sending towns” and they directly pay the full amount of tuition, up to the town’s approved tuition rate, on behalf of their students. Students at public and secular private schools are eligible, students at religious private high schools are excluded. That includes Rice Memorial High School, which the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington owns and operates.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that states can’t oust parents and children from neutral benefit programs simply because they choose a religious private school,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, who argued a similar case on behalf of Trinity Lutheran Church before the court in 2017. “Students should have every opportunity to pursue their educational goals. Vermont isn’t required to subsidize private education, but once it decides to do so, the state can’t disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

 

The complaint notes that some Vermont school districts continue to employ a “pervasively sectarian” test, which evaluates whether a child’s chosen school is “too religious” to participate in the town tuition public benefit. Other school districts, like the Grand Isle Supervisory Union, categorically refuse to allow any religious school to participate. The complaint explains that “Denying a public benefit based on the religious status of a child’s school penalizes families who choose to exercise their faith by sending their children to religious schools.”

“The government is constitutionally required to treat religious people equally,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, denying public benefits because of religion violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause because it unconstitutionally forces families to choose between exercising their religion or enjoying a publicly available benefit.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in the ADF case Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer decision affirmed that a state cannot deny “a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character.” The court’s 2020 decision to uphold Montana’s tuition tax credit program in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue explained that states cannot deny students public educational benefits—including benefits that fund private school tuition—purely based on their school being religious.

ADF attorneys filed A.H. v. French in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont. Thomas E. McCormick, one of more than 3,400 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as co-counsel for the student, her parents, and the Diocese.

 

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

 

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