An online petition has been launched asking that the school board in Vernon allow residents to use their school choice tuition money to attend religious schools.
In Vermont, 81 communities currently allow families to pick the school that’s the best fit for their children, and those families get to use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend. However, the state’s “tuitioning” model doesn’t allow parents to use that money for religious schools.
Patrick Gilligan, a Vermonter who sought the Windham-1 seat for the state House of Representatives in 2018, recently launched a petition online to change that, noting a recent U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled states can’t discriminate against religious schools when it comes to public funding.
“I am petitioning the Vernon School Board, to have Vernon end its discriminatory policy of denying students in grades 7-12 the ability to use their educational vouchers on parochial schools; immediately,” the petition states. “This policy denies Vernon students of their inalienable right, granted to them by God, to freely exercise their religion in every aspect of their daily lives. In regards to this injustice, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that these students can use their vouchers on parochial schools.”
Gilligan hopes the petition will raise awareness of the issue not only in Vernon, but throughout the entire state.
Kerry Amidon, chair of the Vernon School Board, told True North she’s been in contact with Gilligan, and that the topic is a pending agenda item as the board works through its budget season.
She added that board members will need to seek legal advice on how the court rulings apply.
“I could talk to, or have our supervisory union talk to, the attorneys and see just what’s going on,” she said. “I do believe this is going to be a complicated and complex issue.”
In January, a federal appeals court judge determined that three school districts could not exclude religious school students from using tuition vouchers. Rice Memorial High School, in South Burlington, was one religious school involved in a lawsuit by families seeking financial help to send their children there.
Also, the libertarian legal group Institute for Justice is suing so that children can be sent to Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland and the New England Classical Academy in Claremont, New Hampshire.
The petition Gilligan launched references legal precedent on public money for parochial schools from around the nation.
“In Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017), it was ruled that states cannot deny state grant money going to religious institutions,” it states. “If non-religious institutions can receive them. As it violates the Free Exercise Clause in the U.S. Constitution.”
It also references a groundbreaking SCOTUS case from last year.
“In Espinoza v. Montana (2020), it was ruled that if public funds are granted to be used for students to attend private schools they cannot discriminate against parochial schools. As it violates the Free Exercise Clause in the U.S. Constitution.”
Vermont Law School professor Peter Teachout told True North there are two arguments on this issue, each citing different constitutional law.
“It’s a tough one because you are trying on the one hand not violate the federal Constitution, which says you can’t discriminate against parents or institutions simply because of their religious status [The Free Exercise Clause], and the Vermont Constitution which says that you can’t use state aid to support religious instruction and worship,” he said.
Teachout said districts can insist that no money given to a parochial school be used for promoting religion. Things like infrastructure and basic inventory can be OK, as long as the school documents what it’s to be used for.
“School districts are looking for trouble if they continue to say the one reason we are not going to give you any state aid or tuition support is because of your status as a religious institution,” Teachout said. ” … What you can say is that you are eligible for tuition support even though you are sending your kid to, or even though you are a religious institution, if you will give us guarantees that that state money will not be used to support the propagation of religious views or religious worship or religious instruction.”
Teachout noted there’s nothing to prevent religious institutions that receive federal money for education purposes to then free up other money in their budgets for religious purposes.
“The courts really dealt with that one, and I don’t know that I like it, but the Supreme Court has said the fact that by providing aid for, say, secular non-religious activities at a religious school may allow the school to divert the money they would otherwise spend on the gym or the science class to a religion, they said that doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause — so you can get away with that if you are a religious institution.”
In Maine, three families are insisting that the state pay the tuition for religious schools and are bringing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The conservative shift of the U.S. Supreme Court and a ruling in a Montana case make attorneys for the Maine families more optimistic that they’ll prevail in changing the state’s stance, which dates to 1980,” the Associated Press reported. “The Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the appeal, filed Thursday.”
While Gilligan declined a request for comment for this story, he said he’s waiting to see what legal advice will be given to the Vernon School Board. He also noted that other communities in Vermont are discussing similar initiatives in their districts.