On Tuesday, two families whose children attend a Roman Catholic school joined their Catholic diocese in suing the state of Vermont for discrimination against their school. Under the state’s dual enrollment program, Vermont pays for high school students to attend college classes. Students at every kind of school may take part in the program unless they attend a private religious institution like Rice Memorial High School.
“The Dual Enrollment Program statute discriminates against students attending religious high schools not because of the content of college courses they wish to take, but because of the religious status of the schools they attend,” the lawsuit alleges.
The suit brings two counts against Daniel M. French, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, and George B. “Jeb” Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System: a violation of the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s “Due Process” clause.
Parents Christopher and Jill Messineo sued on behalf of themselves and their pseudo-anonymous children: A.M., a junior at Rice Memorial High School; and E.M., a sophomore at the school. Parents Russell and Selena Senesac sued on behalf of themselves and their child A.S., a junior at the school. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vt., is also a plaintiff in the suit.
“Students should have every opportunity to pursue their educational goals. That’s especially true in this case, where the government isn’t spending any money on religious education,” Christen Price, legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Christian nonprofit representing the Messineos, Senesacs, and the diocese, said in a statement. “Vermont is discriminating against students purely based on which kind of school they come from.”
Price noted that “Vermont’s program includes public, private secular, and home-school students. Only students from private religious schools are completely excluded.”
“The government is constitutionally required to treat religious people equally,” the ADF lawyer added. She referenced the Supreme Court case Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017), which affirmed that a state cannot deny “a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character.”
“As the U.S. Supreme Court held just the year before last, a state cannot discriminate against students by excluding them from generally available public benefits simply because they attend a religious school,” Price declared.
In Trinity Lutheran, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that government discrimination on the basis of religion is “odious to our Constitution… and cannot stand.”
In an era of increasing bigotry against traditional Christians and Roman Catholics in particular, this case proves particularly resonant.
Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) sparked a national outcry by launching an inquisition against the Catholic charity Knights of Columbus last month. Then the media rushed to judgment against the Covington Catholic High School boys, leading to death threats. Media figures may face lawsuits, and pro-life groups have called for the FBI and DOJ to investigate the death threats.
It seems unlikely the Vermont discrimination is directly connected to these outbursts of anti-Catholic sentiment, but it is tragic to see Catholics again struggling for equal treatment in America.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.