Around New England

Catholic School Students Suing Vermont Claim Religious Discrimination

February 1, 2019

Lawyers representing students from Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington, VT have filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the state has discriminated against their clients on religious grounds, the Burlington Free Press reports.

Attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, a litigating advocacy group that has had success in high-profile cases, complain that three high school students attending the parochial high school in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington have been denied access to college-level classes merely because they attend a religion-based school.

Vermont offers students in the state the “Dual Enrollment Program“; the 2013 voucher-based program allows students still in high school to take college classes that are paid for by the school districts in which the students reside. The law extends not only to public and home school students, but also to private school students, providing such schools are “approved independent” programs.

According to the Burlington Free Press, the law states students can participate in the Dual Enrollment Program if the school is “an approved independent school ‘to which the student’s district of residence pays publicly funded tuition on behalf of the student.'”

However, since the plaintiffs’ school is a Catholic school, Vermont officials are claiming that a Vermont Supreme Court decision in 1999 prevents the directing of public funds to reimburse or assist a sectarian school like Rice Memorial.

That 1999 decision — in Chittenden Town School District v. VT Dept. of Education (CTvDOE) — states that the court “determined only that public funds may not pay for religious worship within the meaning of [the VT constitution’s] Article 3 [freedom of religion], wherever it occurs.”

New Boston Post notes that the 1999 court went to great lengths to show that, in the particular case before the court, religious instruction at a private Catholic high school was tantamount to worship. According to the court’s argument in CTvDOE, the ruling hinged on the meaning and interpretation of Article 3‘s “Compelled Support Clause,” which states that “no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship…” [bold added to highlight court’s emphasis]

It is not clear what argument the current plaintiffs’ lawyers intend to make before the court.

The Burlington Free Press observes that Alliance Defending Freedom was successful before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, a case in which the SCOTUS ruled employers are not legally bound to provide health care products and procedures that violate their own religious conscience; and in a case involving a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for the wedding of a homosexual couple.

According to information posted on the Rice Memorial website, the school has nearly 500 students in grades 9-12 and accepts students of all faiths. The website further notes that over 10,ooo alumni from Rice live in the region, and that the school has 19 state championships in Division 1 athletics in the last 4 years. 

Below is the complete text of Article 3 of Vermont’s constitution:

Article 3. [Freedom in religion; right and duty of religious worship]

That all persons have a natural and unalienable right, to worship Almighty God, according to the dictates of their own consciences and understandings, as in their opinion shall be regulated by the word of God; and that no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of conscience, nor can any person be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of religious sentiments, or peculia[r] mode of religious worship; and that no authority can, or ought to be vested in, or assumed by, any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control the rights of conscience, in the free exercise of religious worship. Nevertheless, every sect or denomination of christians ought to observe the sabbath or Lord’s day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.




Read More