Three families are suing Vermont’s education secretary and certain school districts, saying that denying them a state tuition benefit to send their children to religious schools is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court comes two months after a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Montana case that states can’t cut religious schools out of programs that send public money to private education.
The families live in areas where the school districts will pay tuition for a student to attend public schools operated by other districts or an approved independent school, according to the lawsuit.
“Vermont has some great public schools, but the ones available to us weren’t a great fit for our son,” said Michael Valente in a written statement. “And I know we are not alone. Families across the state send their kids to private religious schools for a variety of reasons. The state should not discriminate against those families for doing what’s best for their kids.”
The lawsuit was filed by the Valentes and another family, who send one child each to Mount St. Joseph Academy, a Catholic school in Rutland and a third family who sends two children to New England Classical Academy, a Catholic school in Claremont, New Hampshire.
The denial of the tuition payments to families choosing “otherwise qualified religious schools” is unconstitutional, the lawsuit states.
“Defendants’ denial of a generally available public benefit — tuition payments for secondary education — to Plaintiffs because their children attend religious schools violates the principle that the government must not discriminate against, or impose legal difficulties on, religious individuals or institutions simply because they are religious,” the lawsuit states.
Also named in the lawsuit are members of the Vermont Board of Education and superintendents of particular school districts. Vermont Agency of Education spokesman Ted Fisher says the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
A lawsuit by three families in Maine who want the state to pay for religious school tuition is pending in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, upheld a Montana scholarship program that allows state tax credits for private schooling in which almost all the recipients attend religious schools.
“A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion.
In light of that decision, the federal appeals court in early August granted an injunction to stop Vermont from excluding some high school students who attend religious schools from taking college classes under the state’s dual enrollment program while an appeal is pending.