Federal Judge Rules State’s School Choice Funds Can Be Used For Religious Schools

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Vermont must reimburse parents denied state tuition benefits based on their decision to send their children to a religious school, per a settlement approved by a federal judge Thursday.

Under the settlement, the state is prohibited from continuing to deny parents access to tuition based on a school’s “religious status, affiliation, beliefs, exercise, or activities,” and residents of districts that previously denied funds on this basis must be reimbursed. District Judge Christina Reiss cited the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in Carson v. Makin, a case that similarly found Maine could not exclude religious schools from its tuition program without violating First Amendment religious liberty protections.

Vermont’s town tuitioning program, like Maine’s, exists to help educate children in rural areas where public schools may not exist or cover all grade levels. Where the district has no available option in a town, it pays to send students to a private or public school of the parent’s choice.

Three families initially brought the suit in September 2020. (RELATED: States Have Become The New Battleground For Religious Liberty)

“Carson v. Makin made clear that the government cannot deny or restrict benefits to people based on religion,” Institute for Justice Attorney David Hodges told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Now that the question of Vermont’s tuitioning program has been settled, I am unaware of any state that is unconstitutionally restricting educational benefits in the same manner as Vermont.”

On Sept. 13, 2022, the Vermont Secretary of Education sent a letter to district superintendents instructing them that they can no longer deny tuition to religious schools “that meet educational quality standards” in light of the Carson v. Makin decision.

A similar case involving the families of two Vermont Catholic high school students was settled in December, when the judge similarly ruled the families must be reimbursed by the district for what they paid out-of-pocket.

“This settlement guarantees that any Vermont family eligible for tuition benefits can use those benefits to find the best education that meets their kids’ needs,” said Hodges in a statement. “Vermonters will no longer have their civil rights violated when they send their children to schools that happen to be religious.”

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