A federal appeals court on Wednesday struck down a provision in a Vermont school-tuition program that discriminated based on religion.
“Four years ago, the Supreme Court reminded states that it ‘has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that can be justified only by a state interest of the highest order…,'” the opinion from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
“Last June, the court clarified that this rule does not allow a state to apply a state constitutional prohibition on aid to religion that would ‘bar religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools….’ The court emphasized that ‘[s]tatus-based discrimination remains status based even if one of its goals or effects is preventing religious organizations from putting aid to religious uses’ and that a state cannot justify discrimination against religious schools and students by invoking an ‘interest in separating church and state more fiercely than the Federal Constitution….'”
The opinion addressed the officials who run Vermont’s Town Tuition Program, who “nevertheless continued to discriminate against religious schools and students in violation of the First Amendment.”
“The Supreme Court has made clear that the prevailing practice in Vermont – maintaining a policy of excluding religious schools from the TTP – is unconstitutional,” the opinion said.
The court fight was over Vermont’s Town Tuition Program, in which towns that do not have their own public schools pay tuition for their students to a school of the student’s choice.
The state had provided that students could use that benefit at any public school or private secular school, but they banned tuition payments to religious private schools, even if that’s what the student chose.
The Alliance Defending Freedom had challenged the practice on behalf of four Catholic high school students, their parents, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.
“Today the court powerfully affirmed the principle that people of faith deserve equal access to public benefits everyone else gets,” said lawyer Paul Schmitt. “Once Vermont chose to subsidize private education, it could not disqualify some private schools solely because they are ‘too religious.'”
He continued, “When the state offers parents school choice, it cannot take away choices for a religious school. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Espinoza decision last year reaffirmed as much and built on its decision in the ADF case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. For too long, Vermont unconstitutionally forced families to choose between exercising their religion or enjoying a publicly available benefit.”
On the issue, the state Supreme Court several years ago had cited a clause in the state constitution that said, “no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of conscience.”
The state court claimed that prohibited public funding for any “religious education.”
It then specified that public funds could be used for tuition at religious schools, but only if there are “safeguards against the use of [public] funds for religious [education].”
But the state never altered its program, nor did it identify any “safeguards” needed.
The appeals court found the individuals “are entitled to TTP funding to the same extent as parents who choose secular schools for their children.”
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