By Todd Smith | The Caledonian Record
The United States Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of private religious schools in a Montana case that challenged the government’s right to deny a state benefit only to sectarian institutions. The decision in Espinoza v. Montana was celebrated as a monumental win for school choice.
In 2015 Montana created a $150 tax credit to anyone who donates scholarship money to private schools. At the same time, the state said that credit was only available to non-sectarian schools. Our nation’s highest court said that was unconstitutional.
“A state need not subsidize private education, but once it decides to do so it cannot disqualify some private schools because they are religious,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the 5-4 majority.
It’s a decision sure to reverberate quickly and loudly throughout the country.
Last year the Justice Department filed a “Statement of Interest” in support of families who are suing the state of Maine for the right to use public education funds for tuition at a religious school.
The Trump administration threw its weight behind three families who sued the state of Maine (Carson v. Makin) after they were told the state’s tuition voucher program could only be used at secular schools. That case continues but sure looks like a loser now for the state of Maine.
The Justice Department made a similar filing in support of a group of Rice High School students who sued the Vermont Department of Education for denying them access to the state’s dual enrollment program that allows high school kids to earn college credit at public expense.
“The State is penalizing parents for exercising their constitutionally protected right to choose a religious education for their children, and is discriminating against the faith-based schools they choose,” lawyers for the Rice students said.
We have long agreed and now the Supreme Court is fully on board.
As the Institute for Justice explains what it all means:
After Espinoza, all forms of educational choice programs should be constitutional in Vermont. In Chittenden Town School District v. Vermont Department of Education, the state supreme court held that religious schools could be excluded from the state’s “town tuitioning” program because there were no restrictions to ensure that state funds would not support religious worship. Because the effect of that decision has been a blanket exclusion of religious options for families, Vermont must now permit families to use their tuition benefits at religious schools under Espinoza. Other educational choice options, including traditional voucher, tax credit, and education savings account programs remain on firm constitutional footing in Vermont.
New Hampshire is one of 38 states with anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments specifically prohibiting public funding for religious schools. That will also now have to change.
Three years ago the United States Supreme Court (Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer) ruled that it was unconstitutional to exclude religious schools from state funding under certain conditions. Now the Supreme Court High Court eliminated all conditions.
It’s too bad that Vermont legislators didn’t just do the right thing. Recall that in 2014 the State House rejected an amendment to H.876 (Branagan) to specifically allow religious school students to take advantage of the state credit voucher program.
The measure failed 76-65. Detractors said their concern was that any form of public support for religious school students might pose constitutional problems.
We thought that was pure hogwash and flew in the face of the Brigham decision — requiring equal access to educational opportunities and equal funding for all Vermont students. It’s also a question of basic fairness and decency.
Unfortunately the state Department of Education is notoriously incompetent on those fronts.
The way we see it, the state discriminated against these kids in a cynical bow to public school hegemony. Why else would an education department, whose lone competency is wasting taxpayer money, go out of its way to deny educational opportunities to a tiny class of Vermont students?
We always thought these exclusions were nakedly partisan, mean-spirited and had virtually zero chance of surviving these long overdue legal challenges. Much to the chagrin of our liberal legislators and the VT-NEA for whom they think they work, we were right.
Todd M. Smith is the publisher of the Caledonian Record, where this editorial first appeared. He lives in St. Johnsbury.