, 2000

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JUNE 11, 1999  3:09 PM
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Joseph Conn or Rob Boston
Vermont Supreme Court Rejects Religious School Vouchers; Americans United Applauds Ruling, Says Court Momentum Turning Against Voucher Movement
WASHINGTON - June 11 - The Vermont Supreme Court today ruled unanimously that voucher-style tuition payments to private religious schools violate the state constitution.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the groups that provided legal assistance in the case, applauded the ruling as an important victory for church-state separation.

"The momentum in courts nationwide is increasingly turning against vouchers," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It's time for voucher proponents to concede that the voucher train has stalled on the track.

"Taxpayers must never be forced to pay for religion, and the Vermont Supreme Court clearly ruled the right way," Lynn added.

Vermont has a state law that instructs districts that do not have their own public schools to provide tuition for families to attend other public or non-religious private schools. However, religious schools are excluded from the program to uphold church-state separation.

The Chittenden school district, which does not have a public high school, adopted a policy of its own in December 1995 that permitted public funding of religious private schools and approved funding of Mount Saint Joseph Academy, a parochial high school in Rutland. Once public funds went to the parochial school, the state withheld funding to the school district and the district filed suit.

A state superior court sided with the state in June 1997, ruling that the town could not use vouchers for religious schools. Today, in Chittenden Town School District v. Vermont Department of Education, the State Supreme Court unanimously ruled the use of tax dollars to pay for religious school tuition violates the state constitutional provision barring tax support of religious worship.

"In this case, the financing scheme can, and presumably will, directly pay for religious instruction," the ruling said.

AU's Lynn concluded, "Voucher proponents are trying to deceive the American people into believing that their misguided scheme is constitutional. Increasingly, the courts are refusing to buy into that ruse."

Courts in Ohio and Wisconsin have declared that vouchers do not violate the separation of church and state. However, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, the highest court ever to hear a voucher case, recently declared vouchers unconstitutional, as did the Maine Supreme Court. Courts in Pennsylvania and the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico have also struck down voucher plans.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states. AU has been a part of legal challenges to every voucher program passed in the country.


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