Editor’s note: This article is reprinted with permission from Ministry Watch, an independent donor advocate that profiles public charities, church and parachurch ministries. Ministry Watch is also a place to learn about how to be a responsible giver.
By Kim Roberts
Vermont will now apply its tuition benefit program to families who choose to send their children to religious schools.
In 1869, Vermont established its Town Tuition Program to provide vouchers to families so they could attend the school of their choice when living in a small town without public schools.
It is based on the principle that towns pay the tuition to other schools instead of paying to maintain a public school as a way of fulfilling their obligation to provide an education to the town’s residents.
In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled the law could not fund tuition to religious schools because “it forced taxpayer support of religious worship.” Families were approved when choosing secular private schools.
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Two high school students, their parents, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington sued Vermont officials in February for not only failing to act neutrally toward religion, as required by the First Amendment, but also for “exhibiting a remarkable hostility” toward religion.
According to the Williams’ family allegations, the Barstow Unified Union School District denied their request for tuition reimbursement several times after adopting a policy to collect “information on private religious schools’ religious activity and [then] to reduce or deny tuition benefits to account for religious schools’ ‘religious worship’ or ‘religious education,’” terms that the district did not define in its policy.
A settlement was reached in the lawsuit on November 30, according to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a religious freedom legal defense fund that represented the families.
“For more than two decades, Vermont unlawfully excluded religious schools and their students from public benefits, essentially eliminating school choice for many parents in the state,” ADF attorney Paul Schmitt said in a press statement.
Recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have favored the plaintiffs in this case and have weighed against excluding private religious schools from tuition assistance programs.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Carson v. Makin, involving tuition assistance in Maine, that the state “cannot exclude students who attend religious schools from a government program in which they are otherwise qualified” based on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. ADF filed a friend-of-the-court brief in that case.
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Two years prior, in a case arising in Montana, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Montana’s exclusion of Christian schools from a state scholarship program was unconstitutional.
In September, Vermont’s Agency of Education issued a letter of guidance following the Carson decision.
“In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Carson v. Makin, we are writing to advise you of the following: School districts may not deny tuition payments to religious approved independent schools or religious independent schools that meet educational quality standards based on the Vermont Constitution’s Compelled Support Clause, Vermont Constitution Chapter I, Article 3.”
According to the ADF, state and local government officials agreed in the settlement that the policy against religious schools was “unconstitutional and unenforceable.”
The settlement is not only forward-looking, meaning future tuition payments will be made, but families who were denied tuition assistance to a qualified religious school will be reimbursed for their out-of-pocket tuition.
Families who were not plaintiffs in the lawsuit will be given the opportunity to request reimbursement for past payment of tuition.
“We are thankful the local school districts decided to do the right thing and give families the benefits they were entitled to,” Schmitt said.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont entered a stipulated judgment dismissing the case with prejudice.