Vermont school sidelined for its Christian beliefs about gender
The school sues state education officials over religious discrimination
A Christian school banned from interscholastic sports in Vermont and denied tuition reimbursements for students has sued multiple state agencies for religious discrimination.
Because of the religious beliefs of Mid Vermont Christian School, the association governing interscholastic sports shut out the school and its students from all statewide sporting and academic events. A different state agency downgraded the school’s classification so its students became ineligible for public tuition payments. Four students who attend the school and their parents joined the lawsuit to seek relief from religious discrimination.
Mid Vermont Christian School in Quechee, Vt., states on its website that it provides a pre-K through 12th grade educational program “immersed in the Biblical worldview.” The school hires only employees who agree with its beliefs, including its policies about Biblical marriage, sexuality, and gender. It requires all students to dress, use restrooms, locker rooms, and pronouns, and play on athletic teams that correspond to their biological sex.
According to its lawsuit, Mid Vermont was a member of the Vermont Principals’ Association until this year. The VPA is an association of 270 public and private middle and high schools that annually sponsors interscholastic athletic and academic events, according to the suit. It works closely with the Vermont Agency of Education. For 28 years, Mid Vermont’s students regularly competed against sports teams from other schools in the state.
The VPA abruptly terminated Mid Vermont’s membership in the association after an incident in February. As described in the lawsuit, the high school girls’ basketball team was scheduled to compete in a playoff against a team that included a male student who identified as female. News stories described the student as over 6 feet tall, taller than any girl on Mid Vermont’s team. Video available to the school showed him playing basketball aggressively, “repeatedly blocking girls’ shots, throwing elbows, and knocking girls down,” the lawsuit stated.
VPA’s general rules prohibit “mixed (boys/girls)” competitions. They also specifically prohibit boys from trying out for traditional girls’ sports activities, including girls’ basketball. The policy “recognizes traditional boys-dominated sports and the need to protect opportunities for girl athletes.” But the VPA’s gender identity policy, prominently placed at the beginning of a 38-page athletic policies booklet, allows boys who identify as girls to compete in girls sporting events.
Mid Vermont alleges in its lawsuit that it expressed concerns to the VPA about its players’ safety. It also states that the school believes that allowing its girls to compete against a boy who identifies as a girl (or vice versa) would affirm that sex is mutable, undermining the school’s religious beliefs. Mid Vermont did not want to be complicit in furthering that falsity. The school asked the VPA before the game not to require its girls to play against the opposing girls’ team with the male player. When the VPA refused, Mid Vermont decided it had no choice but to forfeit the playoff game.
The VPA then issued a news release in support of transgender athletes. In a letter to the school, also publicized by the VPA, the association said that its executive council had determined that the school’s forfeit of the game and its rationale for doing so violated VPA policies. The council decided the school was ineligible to participate in all future VPA activities, banning Mid Vermont’s students from all middle and high school sporting events in Vermont as well as co-ed academic competitions such as the Science and Math Fair or Geo-Bee.
Mid Vermont claims in the lawsuit that the state also engaged in purposeful religious discrimination against the school by refusing to renew its participation in a tuition program.
Until this year, Mid Vermont was a state-approved independent school. Rural school districts in Vermont that do not operate their own K-12 schools must pay tuition for local students to attend the public or approved independent schools of their choice.
According to the lawsuit, when the state required Mid Vermont to renew its approved independent school status this year, it also required the school to demonstrate compliance with a rule prohibiting many forms of discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In Mid Vermont’s case, the rule would apply to the use of its school facilities, as well as its operations, admissions, and employment decisions.
The school informed the state it could not comply with all requirements of the new rule without compromising its beliefs and asked for a religious exemption. The state refused and downgraded the school’s classification to a “recognized school.” The change meant the school could legally operate in the state, but was not eligible for public tuition assistance.
Jake Reed, an attorney representing the school from Alliance Defending Freedom, said the state was trying to avoid the appearance of outright excluding religious schools from public tuition funds. But by prohibiting Christian schools from hiring people of the same faith or having internal policies that align with their Biblical beliefs, the nondiscrimination rule has the same effect, he said.
Other Christian schools, students, and parents have filed lawsuits against Vermont’s education officials over the past 5 years for religious discrimination. Two lawsuits challenged the state’s practice of denying tuition payments to students simply because they chose to attend religious schools. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer in 2017 and Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue in 2020 that denying religious organizations a generally available public benefit solely because they are religious violates their First Amendment rights.
In 2021, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in one Vermont lawsuit that the state had deprived the petitioners of a public benefit as a result of a decadeslong Vermont policy of unconstitutional religious discrimination. It ordered the district court to grant relief to the petitioners because they were entitled to tuition assistance to the same extent as parents who chose secular schools.
When the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Carson v. Makin reaffirmed the same principles, Vermont could no longer ignore the law. The Supreme Court held that Maine’s program, which is similar to Vermont’s, violated the constitutional rights of petitioners who wanted to send their children to religious schools.
Vermont officials agreed to settle the lawsuits. The former Vermont secretary of education sent a letter in September 2022 to all school superintendents. He wrote that, as a result of Carson, tuition payment requests from students going to religious schools had to be treated in the same manner as requests applicable to secular independent schools.
Then the Vermont State Board of Education amended its rules in 2022 to add the new nondiscrimination requirement for all private schools without exceptions permitted for religious schools.
The state legislature also worked on laws that can circumvent Carson’s mandate. During the 2022-2023 legislative session, one bill proposed a total moratorium on approving independent schools. The legislature eventually added the moratorium to the state budget, and it became law on July 1, 2023. It prohibits the state board of education from approving any new applications for an approved independent school “until further direction by the General Assembly.”
Reed at ADF said that all Mid Vermont wanted to do was to adhere to its Christian beliefs that “girls are girls.” But Vermont continues to find new ways to discriminate against Christian schools and exclude them from public benefits. “That’s not permissible by the Constitution,” Reed said. “Hopefully, Vermont will come to recognize that.”