UPDATE: Federal court scraps law excluding religious students from Vermont voucher program
A federal court struck down a Vermont law that prevented state vouchers from funding religious education.
Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer noted that 'once Vermont chose to subsidize private education, it could not disqualify some private schools solely because they are ‘too religious.’
A federal appeals court ended a Vermont statute that barred state vouchers from funding religious education.
As Campus Reform reported in February, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second District granted an injunction requiring Vermont’s Dual Enrollment Program to give funds to a student attending a Roman Catholic high school. Previously, the student was denied access to the funds due to the religious nature of her education.
[RELATED: VICTORY: Federal appeals court rules in favor of Vermont parochial school student]
The court confirmed that she was denied access to the program “solely because of her school’s religious status.”
On June 2, the Alliance Defending Freedom — the world’s “largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom” — announced that the same court struck down the twenty-one-year-old law entirely.
The court’s opinion said that the Supreme Court reminded states four years ago 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.” Accordingly, “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.’”
In a statement from the ADF, legal counsel Paul Schmitt celebrated the court’s ruling: “Today the court powerfully affirmed the principle that people of faith deserve equal access to public benefits everyone else gets.”
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“Once Vermont chose to subsidize private education, it could not disqualify some private schools solely because they are ‘too religious,’” he remarked. “For too long, Vermont unconstitutionally forced families to choose between exercising their religion or enjoying a publicly available benefit.”
Schmitt told Campus Reform that the Supreme Court has now made clear that “governments cannot deny religious schools or their students access to public benefits programs just because the schools are religious.” Based on Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer and other cases argued by the ADF, “the government cannot punish families and take away their benefits just because they choose religious schools.”
“Nearly twenty current Rice Memorial High School students now have access to the tuition program because of the Second Circuit’s intervention,” Schmitt added. “And because the Court of Appeals has stopped school districts from discriminating, many more families are inquiring about sending their children to the school. Although the precise number of students cannot be known, we can safely say that countless families’ lives have been impacted by the more than two decades of religious discrimination in Vermont.”
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft