Vermont Being Sued for Excluding Catholic School Students from State-funded Early College Courses Program

Two families and a Catholic diocese are suing the state of Vermont for discrimination after Catholic school students were excluded from a program that offers college classes to high school students at state expense.

Two students and their families, as well as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, have filed a federal lawsuit against the state’s education department over what they say is unlawful criteria for its Dual Enrollment Program, which gives students the ability to take publicly funded college courses to help them achieve post-secondary readiness.

Under the program, students who attend public and secular private schools and those who are homeschooled are eligible for the program to take classes funded by the government at 19 different institutions that provide both high school and college credit.

However, the state excludes students who attend private religious high schools from taking classes through the program.

The program was launched in 2013 and the exclusion of private religious schools is thought to be consistent with a Vermont Supreme Court ruling in 1999. The ruling found it unconstitutional for the state to pay tuition to sectarian schools as part of the state’s Town Tuitioning Program, a program that allowed parents in certain towns to send their children to private school at state expense.

“The State is penalizing parents for exercising their constitutionally protected right to choose a religious education for their children, and is discriminating against the faith-based schools they choose,” the lawsuit explained, adding that it violates both the free exercise and equal protection clauses found in the U.S. Constitution.

Although the top court in the state has ruled that allowing public funds to go to religious school violates the state constitution, the plaintiffs maintain that the state officials can’t plausibly argue that the Vermont constitution requires excluding religious high school students from a secular education program made available to other students.

The two students involved in the lawsuit attend Rice Memorial High School, a Catholic school under the authority of the diocese. Because of its status as a Catholic school, Rice Memorial is prohibited from entering into a Dual Enrollment Program participation agreement with the Vermont Agency of Education.

The plaintiffs are being represented by Thomas E. McCormick, one of more than 3,000 attorneys allied with Alliance Defending Freedom, a national nonprofit that is involved in prominent religious freedom cases. ADF has won nine U.S. Supreme Court cases in the last seven years.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Samuel Smith