The Supreme Court yesterday rejected a challenge to a Vermont policy of subsidizing tuition for some students who attend private schools but denying such funds to students who attend religious institutions.
A group of Vermont parents had claimed the policy discriminated against them based on their religion. "Across the nation, from Arizona to Florida, states are acting boldly . . . to enact a variety of charter-school, tax-credit, school-choice, and other educational-reform programs," asserted the parents, who were denied state tuition aid for Mount St. Joseph Academy, a Roman Catholic high school in Rutland. "Unfortunately, these initiatives have often been hamstrung and delayed by baseless . . . challenges that reflect policy disagreements more than sound constitutional doctrine."
Yesterday's order marked the third time in 13 months that the Supreme Court refused to enter the fractious debate over using publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition. While vouchers are increasingly at the forefront of the presidential campaign and congressional politics, their constitutional status remains uncertain.
On the state level, courts are divided on what is lawful under the Constitution's First Amendment, which says government may not infringe upon the free exercise of religion on the one hand, but not promote religion on the other. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, for example, has ruled that taxpayer-funded vouchers for religious schools are constitutional, and the Arizona high court has upheld a program that gives tax credits to people who make donations to religious schools. But the top courts in Maine and Vermont have ruled that their respective states cannot provide tuition reimbursement for religious education.
Since last fall, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly issued orders leaving those lower court rulings intact. As was the case yesterday, the orders set no precedent for other states to follow.
Vermont's tuition reimbursement program, dating 130 years, was established to help pay private school tuition for students in rural areas where there is no public high school. In June, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that if the state were to pay for parochial school tuition it would violate the state constitution's requirement that public funds not be used to "support any place of worship." The court rejected the Vermont parents' claim that their federal free-exercise rights were being violated, saying denial of funds would violate the Constitution's guarantee of free exercise only if it forced students to forgo their religious beliefs or practices.
Indicative of how these various school-funding cases have garnered national attention, the parents were supported in their effort to persuade the Supreme Court to hear the case by a "friend of the court" brief submitted by the Christian Legal Society, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the National Association of Evangelicals.
But in its brief to the justices urging them not to take up the case Andrews v. Chittenden Town School District, the Vermont Department of Education observed that none of the parents had contended their children attended the parochial high school because of core religious beliefs or because it was required by the church. State Attorney General William H. Sorrell, who wrote the brief, said allowing the subsidy to go to pervasively sectarian schools would be unconstitutional.