Court: Vermont can’t exclude Catholic school student from college tuition program

A federal court of appeals has sided with a Catholic high school student who challenged a State of Vermont policy that excludes students at private religious secondary schools from a no-cost college credit program.

“Today’s decision levels the playing field by ensuring that Vermont parents and students who have chosen a faith-based education can enjoy the same publicly available opportunities as their neighbors,” Jake Warner, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said Jan. 19.

Amy Hester, a senior at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington, is a plaintiff in the case with her parents and the Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which runs the school.

As a student at a private religious high school, Hester was excluded from the Vermont Education Agency’s Dual Enrollment Program. The program allows high school students to take college courses with tuition paid by the state. Students from public schools are eligible, as are students from secular private schools and homeschooled students.

The State of Vermont pays tuition for dual enrollment credit directly to the post-secondary institution, and makes no payments to high schools at all. Religiously affiliated colleges that offer religious coursework can take part in the dual enrollment program and so receive state funding.

While a lower court rejected a request for a preliminary injunction against the policy, Hester has “a clear or substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their First Amendment claim,” Judge John M. Walker Jr. of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said Jan. 17, as reported by the Vermont newspaper the Battleboro Reformer.

Judge Steven Menashi, in a concurring decision, said Hester had a clear likelihood of successfully arguing that her exclusion from the dual enrollment program “violates her First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.”

Continue Reading…