Investigation of Claims of Age Discrimination

Court rules that investigation of teacher’s complaint does not violate school’s rights.

Church Law and Tax 1991-03-01 Recent Developments


The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that a state law requiring church-operated elementary and secondary schools to comply with various state regulations did not violate the constitutional right of parents to freely exercise their religion. The Vermont compulsory education law requires all children between 7 and 16 years of age to attend either a public school or “a reporting private school.” All that is required of a “reporting private school” is that it file an annual report with the state department of education agreeing to offer certain courses, state its purposes, state the days and hours the school is in session, provide a list of students, and agree to notify the state when a student leaves. Monitoring whether or not a private school is offering the minimum course of study prescribed by state law is left up to the parents and not the state. A church that operated a private school refused to comply with these reporting requirements. As a matter of religious principle, it could not accept state control over the education of its children. The state criminally prosecuted two parents for violating state compulsory attendance law by sending their son to a non-reporting private school. The parents argued that their prosecution violated the constitutional guaranty of religious liberty. A trial court rejected this claim, and the parents appealed. The state supreme court began its opinion by observing that the constitutional guaranty of religious liberty is violated only if a state law burdens a sincerely-held religious belief, and the law does not serve a “compelling state interest” in the least restrictive way. The court readily agreed that the parents’ right to freely exercise their religion was “burdened” by the state compulsory attendance law. However, the court concluded that this burden was outweighed by the state’s “compelling interest” in the education of its citizens. It quoted an earlier decision of the United States Supreme Court: “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life … denied the opportunity of an education.” The court noted that a state’s compelling interest in education “has been overwhelmingly sustained” by both state and federal courts. It observed: “[T]here have been extensive challenges to state regulation of home education or private schooling based on assertions of religious liberty. With only isolated exceptions, neutral and reasonable state regulations affecting home schooling and private education have been upheld against free exercise [of religion] challenges.” Further, the court concluded that the state’s minimal reporting requirements were the “least restrictive means” of accomplishing its compelling interest. The court observed in conclusion that when a state establishes minimum education standards, “compliance with them falls within the ambit of the fundamental contract between the citizen and society. It need scarcely be said that each of us, in order to enjoy membership in an organized social order, is pledged to adhere to a number of minimum norms. Of these, one of the most central is society’s duty to educate its children. The nature and extent of education remains largely a matter of personal choice. But there are basic minimums and, this being true, it is up to the people as a whole to set them. One way they have done this is to enact compulsory education statutes.” State v. DeLaBruere, 577 A.2d 254 (Vt. 1990).

See also Employee relations, Sacred Heart School Board v. Labor & Industry Review Commission, 460 N.W.2d 430 (Wis. App. 1990).

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