The claim was brought by lawyers for the Christian legal group Alliance for Freedom (ADF). Thomas McCormick is a long-time attorney in Vermont who works with the ADF Advocate Network and serves as local counsel on behalf of families and the Diocese of Burlington.
On Wednesday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont issued its decision to enforce the settlement agreement. Claimant families who requested tuition but were denied by their district will be reimbursed for out-of-pocket tuition, ADF said. School districts will reimburse claimant families directly; other families will be able to apply for reimbursement from the school district. The state of Vermont and school districts will also pay for the family’s attorney, ADF said.
Vermont’s school choice program dates back to 1869. Since 1999, the state has banned religious schools from participating in the program after the state Supreme Court ruled that public funds could not be used to “support any place of worship” under the Vermont constitution. The state was released after more than twenty years, in 2020.
The settlement of the cases follows a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court in June in Carson v. Makin. In that ruling, the court ruled 6-3 that Maine’s policy, which barred students on student aid programs from using their aid to attend “sect” schools, violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
In that decision, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that because his aid program chose to fund private schools, some private schools could not be excluded solely because of their religion. “Unless the school is religious, the government pays tuition for some students in private schools. This is religious discrimination. An anti-government interest does not justify legislation that excludes some members of a community from other public benefits because of their religious practices.”
Other recent Supreme Court cases have produced favorable outcomes for school choice advocates. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a June 2020 decision, the court ruled that a state grant program that excluded religious schools violated the free exercise clause. And in 2017, the court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer that church-owned playgrounds are eligible for public benefit programs.