Judge rules Vermont must allow school choice funds to be used for religious schools

February 18, 2023
Jen Krausz

A federal judge approved a settlement on Thursday that said the state of Vermont must reimburse parents who want to use school choice funds for religious schools, which had previously been excluded under the law. 

Under the settlement, the state may not exclude schools from the program because of “religious status, affiliation, beliefs, exercise, or activities,” and parents who have been denied state funds for religious schools previously will be reimbursed.

District Judge Christina Reiss cited the precedent established last year in Carson v. Makin, a similar case in Maine that found excluding religious schools from school choice programs violated the First Amendment's religious liberty protections.

Like Maine, not all rural areas of Vermont have public schooling in place. In those areas where a public school is not available, the state pays for tuition at a school of parents' choice.

A clear ruling

Three families brought the suit against their state in September 2020.

On Sept. 13, 2022, a letter was sent by the Vermont Secretary of Education to district superintendents with instructions to stop denying tuition to religious schools “that meet educational quality standards,” citng the Carson v. Makin decision.

“Carson v. Makin made clear that the government cannot deny or restrict benefits to people based on religion,” Institute for Justice Attorney David Hodges told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Now that the question of Vermont’s tuitioning program has been settled, I am unaware of any state that is unconstitutionally restricting educational benefits in the same manner as Vermont.”

“This settlement guarantees that any Vermont family eligible for tuition benefits can use those benefits to find the best education that meets their kids’ needs,” Hodges continued. “Vermonters will no longer have their civil rights violated when they send their children to schools that happen to be religious.”

Another case involving two Catholic high school students in Vermont was settled in December, and the families were ordered to be reimbursed for their tuition.

Misguided attempt

Most such restrictions arise out of a misguided attempt to keep church and state separate, but this prohibition is not in the Constitution, but appeared in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson and has since been seemingly codified into law, or at least that attempt has been made.

What does appear in the Constitution is a prohibition on states or the national government establishing an official religion that all must follow, since such establishments had led to religious persecution for many colonists, and was their main reason for coming to America.

The First Amendment further allows people freedom of religious expression, which secularists and atheists have tried to restrict as much as they can, in the last 100 years especially.

An argument could be made that states have tried to establish a "religion" by making laws entirely secular and prohibiting religion in the public square.

This would have horrified the Founding Fathers, and it's good to see at least one such situation remedied.

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