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How Vermont Discriminates Against Students at Private Religious Schools

By Sarah Kramer posted on:
September 28, 2020

In Vermont, it’s pretty clear why so many families choose to send their children to Rice Memorial High School, a Catholic school operated by the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont.

Rice pursues its mission—to help students reach their God-given potential—by forming young men and women both in and out of the classroom. Rice offers students a diverse curriculum with robust opportunities for honors and AP classes. Students can also take classes in foreign languages and the fine and performing arts. On top of that, students also benefit from participating in top-notch athletic programs and meaningful community service opportunities.

Armed with an excellent high school education, over 90 percent of Rice’s graduates go on to pursue higher education—well above the county average.

All in all, Rice’s student body includes almost 350 students from 40 different Vermont towns.

And even more students could thrive at Rice, if Vermont was applying a state program fairly.

Because some Vermont towns, like South Hero, do not have a public high school, a state program entitles the families in those towns to receive a tuition voucher from their local school district in order for their children to attend a private school of their choice…

Unless they choose a religious school, that is.

When a family in South Hero requested tuition reimbursement for Rice, their school district denied the request. Why? Because “Rice is a religious school.” But the government cannot treat students at religious private schools worse than their neighbors who go to secular private schools… or deprive them from receiving a public benefit simply because the school they choose is religious.

That’s unconstitutional.

This week, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against the school district and the state Agency of Education on behalf of a South Hero family as well as the Diocese of Burlington.

Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court has already spoken into this issue.

In the 2017 ADF case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the Court ruled that the government cannot bar access to public benefits solely because an applicant is religious. And in 2020, the Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that states can’t deny educational benefits—including benefits that fund private school tuition—purely based on families choosing a religious school.

Yet, that’s exactly what is happening in Vermont.

While the South Hero School Board will reimburse the tuition of students who attend secular private schools, it will not reimburse the tuition of students who attend religious private schools—simply because they are religious.

This is blatant religious discrimination.

As ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman pointed out:

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. 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.

We are asking the court to set this right and to stop Vermont from treating religious schools and their students worse than everyone else.

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Sarah Kramer

Sarah Kramer

Digital Content Specialist

Sarah worked as an investigative reporter before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.

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