Taylor v. Town of Cabot, et al., 2017 Vt. 92 (Vt. 2017).
The Town of Cabot has available a fund from which it may make grants consistent with federal housing and urban development principles, including repairs or enhancements to the town. Local organizations may apply for grants, subject to citizens’ approval.
The United Church of Cabot sought and was awarded a $10,000 grant to aid in making repairs to the church structure, which serves as a site for non-religious activities as well as worship.
Making public money available to a church irritated plaintiffs, who assert that doing so violates the “compelled support” clause of the Vermont Constitution, Chapter 1, Article III.
The Vermont Constitution forbids compelled support of religion, whether in the form of compelled attendance at worship, the erection of any place of worship, or the support of any minister.
On certified interlocutory appeal from an award of injunctive relief to plaintiffs, the Vermont Supreme Court observed that the central focus of the compelled support clause is worship. In the past, the court had found a compelled support cause violation where public money was used to reimburse tuition for religious schools where no means by which to distinguish religious versus nonreligious activity had been presented. The court’s decision did not mean that no public money could be used to support religious schools, a determination which could court federal “free exercise” trouble.
The Vermont Supreme Court observed that religious organizations are not categorically excluded from receipt of public funds, an observation recently echoed in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017). The critical question is the use of funding to support worship.
Where the public funds to be made available to the church were limited to addressing structural repairs, and where funds could be withheld if that purpose were not met, the Vermont Supreme Court did not think plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits was s clear as did the trial court. Moreover, where plaintiffs would have an adequate monetary remedy should they prevail on the merits, the injunction would be vacated.