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A new lawsuit has been filed against the chiefs of the Vermont Agency of Education and the Vermont State Colleges System over a program that singles out students from religious schools and tells them they are unwelcome in a program that includes all other students.

Officials with the Alliance Defending Freedom have filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Vermont against Daniel French of the Vermont Agency of Education and George B. Spaulding of the Vermont State Colleges System.

The case is being brought on behalf of several students and parents Christopher and Jill Messineo and Russell and Selena Senesac, as well as the Catholic Diocese in Burlington.

The ADF reports the state has a dual enrollment program law that allows students of most schools, public, nonreligious private and even homeschoolers, to be enrolled – and take – college courses simultaneously.

However, it bans students of religious schools.

“Students should have every opportunity to pursue their educational goals. That’s especially true in this case, where the government isn’t spending any money on religious education. Vermont is discriminating against students purely based on which kind of school they come from,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christen Price. “Vermont’s program includes public, private secular, and homeschool students. Only students from private religious schools are completely excluded.”

“The state is paying for college courses, not tuition for a religious high school,” the complaint filed in A.M. v. French with the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont explains. “The Dual Enrollment Program statute discriminates against students attending religious high schools not because of the content of college courses they wish to take, but instead because of the religious status of the high schools they attend. The Dual Enrollment Program statute also draws an irrational and indefensible distinction between homeschooled and private school students, allowing the former to participate while excluding the latter. No constitutional or public policy rationale justifies this classification.”

“The government is constitutionally required to treat religious people equally,” said Price. “As the U.S. Supreme Court held just the year before last, a state cannot discriminate against students by excluding them from generally available public benefits simply because they attend a religious school.”

That decision, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, established that a state cannot deny “a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character.”

The action seeks a ruling that religious school students can participate in the state program as any other student, and nominal damages.

It alleges violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

It states, “The Dual Enrollment Program statute also draws an irrational and indefensible distinction between homeschooled and private school students, allowing the former to participate while excluding the latter. No constitutional or public policy rationale justifies this…”

 

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