State ban on tuition to religious schools challenged

Published: Sep. 10, 2020 at 6:30 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 10, 2020 at 7:08 PM EDT
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - Some Vermont families are going to court to force the state to pay to send their children to religious schools. They say it’s mandated under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Dozens of Vermont towns without their own high school offer school choice. A family can choose a public or private school and the state will pay the child’s tuition. But, if the family chooses to enroll in a religious school, the state will not provide the tuition money. The new lawsuit claims the state’s policy needs to change.

“He’s doing very well and we’re really happy with the school," said Michael Valente, whose son, Dominic, is a sophomore at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland, a private school run by the Catholic Diocese. Dominic had been attending Black River School in Ludlow until it closed, leaving his family with a choice of what school to attend. The family decided MSJ was the best fit.

“For him, it wasn’t an issue of religion, it was an issue of being in a small class and getting the one-on-one help he needed,” Valente said.

Had the Valente family chosen a public or non-religious private school, their home town of Mount Holly would have paid the tuition with tax dollars. But, because of MSJ’s religious affiliation, that’s not allowed. The state has cited the constitutional separation of church and state.

“It should neither favor, nor disfavor non-religion over religion, or one religion over another. As long as the state remains neutral and families exercise their genuine and independent choice as to where they want to educate their kids, there is no violation or concern about the separation of church and state," said Tim Keller, the Attorney representing the Valente family.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if a state’s school choice system allows families to choose private schools, the state cannot refuse to pay tuition just because the school has a religious affiliation.

“The state of Vermont may very well be in constitutional hot water," says Jared Carter, an assistant professor of law at Vermont Law School. He says the Supreme Court case may apply to Vermont because once a state agrees to provide funding to private schools, they cannot exclude a private school based on its religious status. “Certainly the state could change its rules, or the Legislature could take up the issue during the legislative session and change the law.”

Keller and the Institute for Justice are suing the state on behalf of the Valente Family and two other Vermont families.

For the Valente family, paying taxes and tuition is a struggle. “I pretty much work all the time and so does my wife. It’s not easy, but we do it because we believe our son’s education comes first,” Valente said.

Keller tells WCAX, the lawsuit was just filed and the papers have been served on the state defendants. They are currently trying to serve papers to the school districts and superintendents also named in the case.

We reached out to the state’s defense team who told us they did not believe they had been served the papers and could not comment at the time.

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