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Vermont Hot Potato: Who Will Decide if State Funds Can Go to Religious Schools That Defy Anti-Discrimination Laws

May 10, 2021

Our local paper featured a front page article today by Vermont Digger writer Lola Duffort that described the quandary the SCOTUS has put on Vermont’s longstanding voucher program. For decades— or perhaps centuries– Vermont has allowed local school boards in communities that lack a public school to pay tuition for children in their towns to attend any school they choose…. EXCEPT for religiously affiliated schools. In the past when this de facto voucher system has been challenged a clause in the State constitution supported school boards who did not want to fund such schools. But now, in the wake of the SCOTUS’ Espinoza decision, there is a legal question about WHO decides if a religiously affiliated school can receive State funds, and one case in particular is a good proxy for how this is going to play out. As Ms. Duffort writes:

That question rose to the surface recently when former Vermont education secretary Rebecca Holcombe tweeted out a screenshot taken from the handbook of Grace Christian School, a religious institution located in Bennington. The small K-12 school’s “Statement of Faith” compares homosexuality to incest and bestiality, and states that “rejection of one’s biological sex is a rejection of the image of God within that person.”

“All faculty, staff, parents, volunteers and students must uphold and promote the morals and lifestyle dictated in this Statement,” it continued.

Grace Christian also receives public dollars through the state’s child care subsidy program. “#vtpoli, just how much compelled support of state-funded discrimination is OK?” asked Holcombe, a longtime critic of the state’s voucher systems.

Unfortunately no one wants to make the decision about whether it is OK as the Agency for Education, the State School Board, Local School Boards, the Vermont Legislature, and the  Vermont Human Rights Commission are all trying to pass the ultimate decision to someone else— and there is no clear guidance on which of these agencies will tackle the question which is likely to end up in court no matter WHO decides and HOW they decide.

From this lawyer practicing without a license, it strikes me that the REAL problem is the Espinoza decision itself, which has been interpreted as a blanket repeal of Blaine Amendments that passed in just under 2/3 of the states in the late 1800s. So long as religious schools of any size or any denomination are eligible for receiving state funds we can expect legal battles as far as the eye can see. I await the day for a Madrassa or a cult-like religious school that uses marijuana as a sacrament to seek state funding now that the wall separating church and state is down. So long as mainline denominations are seeking funds for schools that offer, say, a single course in religion are seeking state funds I am certain it will be acceptable. But what will happen when a fanatical religious school or a cult-like religion seeks state funding? Who will say no? Stay tuned!

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