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Religious schools finding favor with the courts

Religious Liberty | A recent Supreme Court ruling about school choice pays off
by Steve West
Posted 8/06/20, 04:02 pm

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has breathed new life into school choice.

On Wednesday, a federal appeals court ordered the state of Vermont to allow students in religious schools to participate in a program that lets high school students earn college credits at the state’s expense. Juniors and seniors can enroll in two college classes for free—unless they go to a private religious school. A group of students and parents at Rice Memorial High School, run by the Catholic Diocese of Burlington, lost a lawsuit against the state in federal court last month and appealed.

Citing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, in which the justices barred discrimination against private religious schools in public funding of education, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the students likely would win the case on appeal. In the meantime, Vermont must allow them to enroll in the program while attending Rice Memorial High.

“No state can discriminate against students based on which kind of school they attend,” said Alliance Defending Freedom attorney John Bursch, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of students, parents, and the diocese in February 2019. He noted that the Supreme Court ruled against Montana’s Blaine Amendment, a constitutional provision barring state aid to religious organizations. Though Vermont’s law is only indirectly related to its Blaine Amendment, Bursch said it “draws exactly the kind of status distinctions that Espinoza prohibits. … The bottom line is that if you are providing money to any private schools, you have to provide it to secular and religious schools alike.”

A similar case in Maine also may get a boost from Espinoza. The state provides tuition funding for students in towns without a public school to attend private schools. But it prohibits the funding from going to religious institutions. In June 2019, a federal judge ruled against three families contesting the state law. Now on appeal, attorneys representing the families have filed an additional statement arguing Espinoza greenlights the inclusion of religious options in the school choice program.

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Steve West

Steve is an attorney and freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet or at his blog.

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