SCOTUS ruling forces Vermont lawmakers to make tough choices on school funding

MONTPELIER, Vermont (WCAX) – Vermonters are analyzing a number of landmark decisions from the United States Supreme Court, from abortion to firearms. But the High Court also recently ruled in a landmark First Amendment case that opens the door to the use of public education funds for religious school tuition, a decision that will have a profound impact on Vermont. .

Many rural communities in Vermont do not have schools. These students live in so-called school choice cities that give students a voucher to attend public, private, or independent schools.

This funding was barred to religious schools like Rice Memorial in South Burlington because they provide religious instruction. But the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Maine’s Carson v. Mackin, that school voucher programs cannot discriminate against the Constitution’s free exercise clause, the freedom to practice one’s religion.

The decision raises a direct conflict with the Constitution of Vermont.

“Vermont has a constitutional provision that says forced support is not allowed,” said Vermont Law School professor Jared Carter. “Based on what the court said about the Maine law, we can pretty clearly infer that the Vermont law would not be valid.”

With Vermont and the country’s Constitution now out of step, state lawmakers will be forced to make changes. A bill considered this past session while the Maine case was pending would have allowed school voucher funding to go to religious schools as long as they certified it would not be used for religious instruction.

“If you’re going to take dollars, you can’t discriminate and you can’t use those dollars for religious purposes,” said D-Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion.

That bill has been put on hold, but Campion says that could be an option. Other options could include eliminating all funding for independent schools or funding tied to certain programs.

Mill Moore of the Vermont Independent Schools Association says they are currently analyzing the details of the decision, but any changes must include anti-discrimination provisions.

“Protected groups need to be protected,” Moore said.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington says it is waiting to see what changes lawmakers will make.

“We don’t know if this will impact Vermont law or funding for sending cities and sending students to religious schools, and in our case, specifically, Catholic schools,” said Bishop John McDermott of the diocese.

The Vermont State Board of Education and the Education Agency declined to comment on the decision.

Jared Carter says the big payoff is a change in how we fund education.

“The bottom line is that Vermonters across the state will fund religious education,” he said.

Lawmakers say they will spend much of the summer and fall talking with schools, educators and lawyers to ease the tension between state and federal constitutions, but also not to go to against the First Amendment.

Related story:

High Court ruling creates conflict in education funding in Vermont

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