Education

In a Vermont Christian school, a state investigation highlights anxiety over discrimination

A Bennington religious school received public tuition dollars. Last year, state officials wanted to know if it was discriminating against LGBTQ+ children. Photo illustration by Natalie Williams/VTDigger. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger.

Last spring, the Vermont Department for Children and Families launched an investigation into Grace Christian School, a private school and pre-K program in Bennington. 

Rebecca Holcombe, a former Vermont secretary of education, had tweeted a screenshot from the school’s family handbook, which called homosexuality and bisexuality “sinful and offensive to God” and stated that “rejection of one’s biological gender is a rejection of the image of God within that person.”

Sean Brown, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, determined that Grace Christian was not in violation of state rules. 

But the investigation underscores the uneasy coupling of public money and religious schools in Vermont. And it highlights an unsettled area of state law — one that lawmakers declined to clear up during this year’s legislative session. 

“We've had parochial schools in the state since the beginning of time, basically,” said Peter Teachout, a constitutional law professor at Vermont Law School. But when public dollars enter the picture, “that gets pretty tricky to administer in a fair and effective way.”

In sparsely populated Vermont, thousands of students live in towns that do not operate schools at all grade levels. School districts in those towns instead use money from the state’s education fund to pay for students to attend public or private schools elsewhere — sometimes even outside the state or country

Under the state’s constitution, Vermonters cannot be forced to support religious practices that they do not believe in. For years, the state barred school districts from using public money for tuition at religious schools.

But in the wake of a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, a series of court rulings effectively overturned that ban. Since then, Vermont’s sending districts have operated in a gray area, stuck between those recent court decisions and the state’s constitution. 

“It is not necessarily consistent throughout the state how (districts) handle it,” said Sue Ceglowski, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. Local districts are “definitely” on their own in interpreting the laws, she said. 

But what’s clear is that public money has already begun flowing to religious schools. According to data provided by the Vermont Independent Schools Association earlier this year, 14 students used roughly $150,000 in public tuition money to attend religious schools in the 2020-21 school year.  

One of those schools was Grace Christian School. The Bennington school received $7,250 in public tuition money in the 2020-21 school year, according to the independent schools association’s data. Public money also subsidizes tuition for children in Grace Christian’s preschool program. 

‘We love and respect everyone’

In April 2021, after receiving a complaint when the school’s handbook came to light, Vermont’s Department for Children and Families launched an investigation into whether Grace Christian discriminated against prospective LGBTQ+ students. 

The state’s probe was focused solely on Grace Christian’s preschool program, which is bound by a different set of state rules than schools are. But the handbook in question also applied to students in higher grade levels. 

Grace Christian’s handbook claimed the right to deny admission to a student “if the atmosphere or conduct within the home or the activities of the student are counter to or in opposition to the biblical lifestyle the school teaches,” according to a copy of the book received through a public records request to the Department for Children and Families. 

"This includes, but is not limited to, participating in, supporting or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activity, or bisexual activity; promoting such practices; or being unable to support the moral principles of the school,” the school’s handbook said.

The school also asked the parents of prospective students to sign a “Statement of Faith,” which included a provision stating that homosexuality and bisexuality were “sinful and offensive to God.”

After completing the investigation, officials found that the school had violated the department’s rules against discrimination. But Grace Christian administrators appealed that decision. 

Grace Christian’s principal, Micah Hayre, had just begun the position at the start of the 2020-21 school year, the school argued, according to a summary of the investigation written by state officials. 

Because of the “consuming nature” of the pandemic, the school had not had the chance to update its online handbook. During the investigation, the school removed the document from its website and revised its Statement of Faith. 

Administrators argued that the school had never actually denied admission to anyone; instead, Grace Christian was itself the target of a “witch hunt,” Hayre said in a letter to the commissioner.   

“We love and respect everyone, just like Jesus did,” Shawn Smith, a Grace Christian administrator, wrote in another letter to state officials. “We welcome all who are willing to hear the Gospel and the biblical teaching concerning marriage and sexuality.”

In November, Brown, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, sided with the school, citing administrators’ “testimony regarding how you love and support all children and families” and their willingness to revise the school materials.

In an email to VTDigger, Smith said that the department’s initial decision was a “total shock.”

“We are grateful that, after further investigation, the state cleared GCS and recognized that we welcome all students,” he said. 

The school’s current handbook is no longer available online. Smith declined to send a copy via email. 

Grace Christian’s Statement of Faith, which is on the school’s website, now says that “God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female,” and that marriage is “exclusively the union of one man and one woman, and that intimate sexual activity is to occur exclusively within that union.”

“We believe that every person must be afforded compassion, love, kindness, respect, and dignity,” the final affirmation reads. 

Parents must sign the statement to show they understand the school’s values, Smith said in his email, but “they do not have to have the same beliefs.”

Balancing act

Macie Rebel-Kidwell, a spokesperson for the Department for Children and Families, said that the agency works to balance Vermonters’ freedom of religion with prohibitions on anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination.

“The Department works every day with individuals and organizations with religious beliefs that may implicate State services and regulations, and we do that with respect for the different religions and support for the right to religious freedom,” Rebel-Kidwell said. "We also work every day to support families and children in the LGBTQ community to prevent discrimination and provide for the needs of those whom we serve.”

Bor Yang, the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, which investigates allegations of discrimination, emphasized that she could not comment about Grace Christian or any other specific situation. 

In general, she said, “discriminatory policies on their face (are) significant, relevant evidence of discrimination.”

“They are dangerous, because they will exclude people before those people have even had the ability to apply,” Yang said.  

In theory, Vermont’s independent schools are already bound by the state’s Public Accommodations Act, which prohibits discrimination in a wide range of institutions and businesses. 

What’s more, the state Board of Education, which oversees independent schools, recently issued new rules that will explicitly require schools to affirm that they don’t discriminate in order to receive public funds. 

But some state officials and lawmakers suggest those measures are not strong enough. 

Questions of clarity

Although the state’s Public Accommodations Act is widely interpreted to cover both public and private schools, “there (has) been some suggestion from some legal minds that maybe it's not clear,” Yang said.

There could also be legal questions about whether the state Board of Education has the authority to withhold public money from schools if they discriminate, said Teachout, the Vermont Law School professor. 

When it comes to questions about public money and potential discrimination in religious schools, “there ought to be a simple, straightforward legislative process for making those decisions,” Teachout said. 

Earlier this year, the Vermont Senate passed a bill intended to create that process. That proposed legislation would place guardrails on public money in religious schools and shore up potential weak points in the state’s anti-discrimination rules. 

Once in the House, though, that bill stalled. School administrators and the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Association had urged lawmakers to hold off until an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case about Maine’s public tuition system, which is expected to have legal ramifications in Vermont. 

“Precisely because this legislation implicates so many of our deepest commitments, the General Assembly cannot afford to get (the bill) wrong,” Harrison Stark, a staff attorney at the Vermont ACLU, wrote in testimony submitted to lawmakers. 

Stark later clarified that the ACLU supported efforts to pass anti-discrimination legislation during the current session.

But last month, lawmakers in the House Committee on Education declined to do so.  

Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, the committee’s chair, said that lawmakers still wanted to wait until the legal landscape became clearer. 

Among the committee’s greatest concerns was ensuring “we did not do something that created (an) immediate sense of satisfaction” that later ended up “working against the goals of anti-discrimination,” Webb said. 

But without those guidelines, the landscape around public money in religious schools will likely stay unsettled at least until the next session. And that inaction raises fears that discrimination in religious schools will go unaddressed. 

“I will never understand why House leadership and House Education leadership is not moving forward with (this),” said Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who pushed for the bill’s passage. “Particularly given all the attacks on LGBTQ students and adults in this state, throughout the country.”

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Peter D'Auria

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