‘Significant is an understatement’: Supreme Court ruling reverberates throughout Vermont school system

Grace Christian School, a K-12 religious institution located in Bennington. Google Street View

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a tuition program in Maine schools unconstitutionally discriminates against religious schools — a ruling that is expected to have a broad impact in Vermont, which operates a similar tuition fee system.

“‘Significant’ is an understatement,” Vermont Law School professor Jared Carter said of the decision’s expected repercussions in Vermont.

In rural and sparsely populated areas of Maine and Vermont, many towns are not large enough to run their own public schools. Thus, states provide families with public funds to send their children to schools, both public and private, elsewhere.

But there was one key restriction: Maine students were barred from using that public tuition at schools that didn’t provide a secular education. (Some religious schools were allowed because they met state education standards.)

In 2018, a group of parents challenged this Maine program, saying they were discriminated against because they could not receive public money to send their children to private religious schools.

On Tuesday, the conservative supermajority of the U.S. Supreme Court sided with those parents, saying Maine’s program violated the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, which guarantees the right to practice one’s religion freely.

In this case, called Carson v. Makinthe court ruled that the state could not provide certain parents with a “public benefit” – tuition money – while “denying the benefit based on the religious exercise of the recipient”, wrote the Chief Justice John Roberts in the 6-3 decision.

“There is nothing neutral about the Maine program,” Roberts wrote. “The state pays tuition for some students in private schools – as long as the schools are not religious. This is discrimination against religion.”

A distinction without difference

The decision reverberates in the educational world of Vermont.

In recent years, Vermont towns that send students elsewhere for their education—often referred to as “sending towns”—have operated in a gray area when it comes to paying religious school tuition.

A 2020 Supreme Court ruling affirmed that religious schools are eligible for public tuition. But in Maine, officials have tried to distinguish between a school’s religious affiliation and its religious practices.

The idea was that while religious schools could not be automatically disqualified from receiving state funds, state officials could withhold money if a school intended to use it for worship or an explicitly religious instruction.

But Tuesday’s ruling “says it’s a distinction without difference,” said Carter, a professor at Vermont Law School.

“Under this ruling, Vermont will not be able to prohibit funding for religious schools based on their religious status or affiliation, or on the fact that they provide religious instruction,” he said.

The ruling will likely open the door to more students using taxpayer dollars to attend religious schools, some of which may have values ​​that are offensive to many Vermonters.

The decision also raised concerns that Vermont taxpayers could be forced to pay in a system that funds schools that discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and educators.

“This decision means our tax bills will rise to pay more tuition to schools that openly compare LGBTQ neighbors to people who commit bestiality and incest,” said Rebecca Holcombe, former education secretary of the Vermont and candidate at Vermont House, in a text message. .

It’s a reference to Grace Christian School, a private school in Bennington whose textbook previously equated bestiality and homosexuality, which it called “offensive to God.” The school received at least $7,250 in public tuition. (School administrators say the textbook has since been edited out and a state investigation found the school ultimately did not engage in discrimination.)

A spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Education declined to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision.

“This is a devastating decision for Vermont public schools and for all American public schools,” said Don Tinney, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, a teachers’ union. “It’s quite disturbing to see this Supreme Court activist dismantling the wall between church and state. We have never seen the Supreme Court compel states to fund religious education.

The dictates of conscience

But in Vermont, the legal landscape is further complicated by the state constitution. This document contains a clause that prohibits Vermonters from being forced to support a religion “contrary to the dictates of conscience”.

This puts Vermont’s tuition program in a tight spot. A district that refuses to provide tuition to a religious school could violate the US Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday. But sending public funds to this school could violate the “dictates of conscience” of taxpayers – and thus violate the Constitution of Vermont.

“As I read, the main implication is that Vermont is going to have to change its current curriculum,” said Peter Teachout, also a law professor at Vermont Law School.

An extreme, and probably controversial, strategy would be to completely cut public funding for independent schools.

Teachout also suggested a solution in which the state contracts with accredited independent schools and requires them to follow certain rules, such as prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ+ students, in order to receive support. public money.

“Today’s court ruling in the Maine case has nothing to do with a state’s ability to say (that) state taxpayer funds cannot be used by schools. that violate state or federal anti-discrimination policy,” he said.

This spring, the Vermont Senate passed a bill that would have taken a similar route. But that bill died in the House, after lawmakers opted to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision in the Maine case.

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, chairman of the Vermont Senate Education Committee, expressed frustration that lawmakers backed down from the bill, which he sponsored.

“Anyone who’s been awake in the last decade saw this (decision) coming,” he said. “And that’s what Senate Education has been trying to start addressing this year.”

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Jeremy S. McLain