You know you’re onto a hot mess when, in the course of a one-hour hearing, a situation is described as “a potential landmine of constitutional issues” and a passage between Scylla and Charybdis, and a leading Constitutional scholar can’t even guess where the courts are going on the issue.
Such was the state of affairs before the Senate Education Committee Wednesday afternoon. The five solons took testimony on how, or whether, the state must pay tuition to religious schools. The short answer is “yes,” under certain circumstances. The long answer is, “yes,” but exactly how we should do it is an impenetrable thicket of non-ambiguous court decisions and costly legal maneuvers.
And if you don’t, under any circumstances, want your tax dollars going to, say, The Lord’s Anti-Semitic Academy Of Creationist Heteronormativity, well, you’re shit out of luck.
The “credit” for this morass can be awarded to the John Roberts Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision (along ideological lines) in the 2019 case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the high court ruled that the state of Montana could not exclude religious schools from a program that doled out tax credit-funded scholarships for schoolkids.
Vermont doesn’t have a program like that, but if a community chooses not to operate public schools, the state pays tuition for the town’s kids to attend one of a handful of approved private schools, like St. Johnsbury Academy and Burr and Burton Academy. If you apply the Espinoza standard to Vermont, the state must throw the program’s doors open to any qualified private school, religious or not. And “approved” can’t be decided on the increasingly frayed principle of church/state separation.
“The Supreme Court has been moving the goalpost in favor of funding religious institutions,” said Vermont Law School Professor Peter Teachout, the Legislature’s go-to guy for thorny constitutional issues.
After the jump: Fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.