Vermont court rejects vouchers for parochial schools

Justices say public subsidy violates state constitution

June 12, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Deepening the division among courts about the legality of using public funds to pay for tuition at parochial schools, the Vermont Supreme Court yesterday struck down that kind of subsidy.

Because this latest ruling on school vouchers was based only on the state constitution, it is binding and cannot be challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.

But, by adding to a lengthening list of decisions on the issue, with differing results, the Vermont court put pressure on the Supreme Court to take on the dispute under the U.S. Constitution.

One reason the Vermont court analyzed the issue under the state constitution was the wide confusion that it said exists about what the federal Constitution will allow -- confusion that could be ended only by the Supreme Court.

Advocates on both sides of the voucher dispute have been eager for the Supreme Court to get involved. They joined late last year in urging the court to take on a test case from Wisconsin, but the justices passed up that chance without giving a reason.

Since then there have been five lower court rulings -- including the new one in Vermont -- with some upholding and others striking down various forms of public subsidy of parochial schools.

The next chance for the Supreme Court to act on one of those recent decisions is expected to come this fall, when the justices examine a challenge to a tuition tax-credit program that has been upheld in Arizona. A Maine decision striking down a voucher program also may be appealed to the court this summer.

The Vermont law at issue yesterday requires public school districts that do not operate their own high schools to pay for students' tuition at private schools chosen by parents, even if they opt to send their children to a parochial school.

The test case arose when the school board in the town of Chittenden decided in 1996 to reimburse parents for tuition they paid to send 15 of their children to a Roman Catholic school in Rutland.That led to a lawsuit to test the constitutionality of that aid.

The state Supreme Court said the tuition aid violated the state constitution's ban on forced taxpayer support of "religious worship." Since worship and education cannot be separated at that school, the state court said, tuition reimbursement is an invalid form of compelled support for religion -- at least when there are no restrictions on how the parochial school can use the money.

Pub Date: 6/12/99

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