Courts & Corrections

Justices have faith church will get to retain funding from town

Vermont Supreme Court
Justice Beth Robinson speaks during a Vermont Supreme Court hearing. Pool file photo by April McCullum/Burlington Free Press

The Vermont Supreme Court said Friday that the town of Cabot is likely on safe legal footing in its bid to spend $10,000 to renovate a local church.

The justices said a lower court isn’t likely to agree with two men challenging the expenditure as an unconstitutional religious subsidy, so the town can go ahead while a lawsuit is resolved. A lower court had barred Cabot from paying the church yet.

An attorney for the town said the Supreme Court’s decision broke little ground for churches that seek to receive public money.

While the Vermont and United States constitutions prohibit public funding of religious instruction, it remains legal to fund churches for other public services they provide, said Daniel Richardson, of the Montpelier legal firm Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson.

For instance, the church in question — the United Church of Cabot — provides overflow testing space for local schools, Richardson said, and acts as a landmark for the town.

In fact, Richardson said, the Supreme Court’s decision actually reaffirms that public entities can’t discriminate against religious institutions when making grants or other disbursements.

Churches’ rights can conflict with those of people who don’t want to fund religious groups, said Vermont Law School professor Jared Carter, and when two constitutional principles are in tension they tend to produce challenging cases such as this one.

“They can’t discriminate against religious organizations simply because they’re religious,” Carter said, “but, also, individuals can’t be forced to spend money on religious worship.”

“It’s a difficult case … and there are good arguments on both sides,” he said.

Attorneys representing the Cabot residents — Grant Taylor and Richard Scheiber — who sought to block the church from receiving taxpayer funding did not immediately return requests for comment.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to Washington Superior Court for reconsideration but stripped a preliminary injunction barring the United Church of Cabot from taking the town’s money until the case was resolved.

The ruling does not mean the Supreme Court necessarily approves of taxpayers’ subsidizing the United Church of Cabot’s remodeling, but it does mean the justices believe opponents aren’t likely to prevail when the Superior Court reconsiders the case.

Residents approved the grant at town meeting in 2016. The Superior Court imposed the injunction in July that year, and the town appealed the injunction last fall. The Superior Court case itself has not been decided.

An injunction is usually awarded only when one side is considered likely to win and faces irreparable harm without the injunction.

The justices said a number of factors — including a U.S. Supreme Court case decided this summer, also in favor of public funding for churches — made it likely the United Church of Cabot would eventually prevail.

Furthermore, they said, there’s no threat of permanent harm as a result of Cabot funding the church, because if the Superior Court eventually finds the subsidy was improper, the church can simply pay taxpayers back.

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