Editorial: Public funds should stay in public schools

Long Trail fans cheer after a basket by their team during the Vermont Div. IV semifinal with Mid Vermont Christian at the Barre Auditorium in Barre, Vt., on Monday, March 6, 2023. Some fans waved pride flags and wore transgender flags after the Mid Vermont Christian girls basketball team forfeited a game with the Mountain Lions last week and withdrew from the tournament rather than play a team with a transgender athlete. Mid Vermont won 47-46. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Long Trail fans cheer after a basket by their team during the Vermont Div. IV semifinal with Mid Vermont Christian at the Barre Auditorium in Barre, Vt., on Monday, March 6, 2023. Some fans waved pride flags and wore transgender flags after the Mid Vermont Christian girls basketball team forfeited a game with the Mountain Lions last week and withdrew from the tournament rather than play a team with a transgender athlete. Mid Vermont won 47-46. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Published: 12-10-2023 11:53 AM

A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Mid Vermont Christian School last month poses the question of whether Vermont taxpayers can be compelled to financially support religious indoctrination contrary to the dictates of their conscience, the state constitution and duly enacted public policy. The answer almost certainly is that they can be, and will be, so compelled unless the Legislature acts to prevent it.

At issue is Mid Vermont’s exclusion from a state program under which school districts that do not operate their own public schools pay tuition to send students to public schools in other districts or to state-approved private schools of their families’ choice. A related issue is that Mid Vermont’s athletes are prohibited from competing in events sanctioned by the Vermont Principals Association.

Mid Vermont, a pre-K through 12th grade school located in Quechee, is barred from the tuition program because it declines to affirm that it abides by the Vermont Public Accommodations Act and the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act. The school says that to do so is inconsistent with its belief that gender is God-given and immutable; that marriage means only the uniting of one man and one woman; “and that God intends sexual intimacy to occur only between a man and a woman who are married to each other.”

The suit, filed in federal court in Burlington against state and local school officials, argues that by denying it the benefits of the tuition program, the state is infringing on Mid Vermont’s constitutional right to the free exercise of its religious beliefs. This is nonsense, of course. The school is expropriating the language of non-discrimination in order to discriminate. It is perfectly free to hold and teach whatever parochial religious and/or political doctrine it chooses without state interference. What is at issue is whether it is allowed to sup at the public trough, which it is no doubt anxious to do given the $14,000 tuition it charges for secondary school students.

Unfortunately, this nonsense is the law of the land, thanks to the Roman Catholic theocrats who constitute a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. They ruled in a Maine case in 2022 that while no state is obliged to pay tuition to send students to private schools, religious schools may not be excluded if they do.

Vermont’s situation is slightly different, in that the state constitution provides that Vermonters cannot be compelled to support a religion with which they disagree. But it seems highly likely to us that the federal courts ruling in the Mid Vermont case will find that rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution supersede any conflicting ones enumerated in a state constitution.

The Legislature could, of course, try to carve out an exception for religious schools to the state’s fairness and inclusivity policies when it comes to sexual identity and related issues. But the school’s lawsuit itself provides evidence of much broader problems with subsidizing it and any private school like it. A couple of examples will suffice.

The suit states that Mid Vermont’s educational and religious purposes are inseparable: “Educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of” the school’s mission. Similarly, “The Word of God is integrated into each classroom and each subject,” and the school’s purpose is “to glorify God by preparing each student for college, career and Christian ministry through a program of academic excellence established in Biblical truth.”

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There is no good argument for using public funds for the purposes the school describes. The religious doctrine it professes is but one among many that claim to be custodians of The Truth. Taxpayers in a secular society such as ours cannot be obliged to financially support indoctrination in a Christian version, or any religion’s version, of history, or social studies, or art, or philosophy, or science. Painful as it may be, the Legislature must engage with the issue it tried to evade last session. It should require districts that tuition their students elsewhere to designate two or three public schools or one of the state's four historic semi-public academies for that purpose that families can choose among and end public funding of all private schools.