A federal appeals court on Wednesday explained its decision to stop Vermont from excluding tuition funding for students who attend a religious school, saying a lower court ruling from earlier this year did not go far enough to accomplish that.
The opinion followed an injunction granted by the 2nd Circuit in February against the state and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that said states can’t cut religious schools from programs that send public money to private education.
The appeals court had issued its injunction on behalf of four Catholic high school students, their parents and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.
The case deals with a voucher program that allows students in communities that don’t have schools or are not part of supervisory unions to attend schools of their choice, including approved private institutions. The students applied for tuition reimbursement at the Catholic high school, but were denied on the ground that the school is a religiously affiliated school.
A federal judge agreed in January that the students should not be excluded from the funding, but did not allow them to participate in the voucher program until the case was resolved. The judge reasoned that the state needed an opportunity to develop new criteria for voucher eligibility. But the students wanted to take part in voucher program this semester.
The appeals court ordered the judge to amend the decision so the students could get reimbursed.
“Today the court powerfully affirmed the principle that people of faith deserve equal access to public benefits everyone else gets,” Paul Schmitt, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented the students, said Wednesday. “Once Vermont chose to subsidize private education, it could not disqualify some private schools solely because they are ‘too religious.’ When the state offers parents school choice, it cannot take away choices for a religious school.”
Ted Wilson, spokesperson for the Vermont Education Agency, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, upheld a Montana scholarship program that allows state tax credits for private schooling in which almost all the recipients attend religious schools.
A lawsuit by three families in Maine who want the state to pay for religious school tuition was rejected by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. The families have taken their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Story by Kathy McCormack.