• Freedom in Vermont
    May 14,2014

    The Vermont Constitution contains many powerful guarantees of individual rights that go beyond rights contained in the U.S. Constitution. In recent decades, Vermonters seeking to safeguard or claim their freedoms have made a practice of appealing to the Vermont Constitution as a more likely protector of the individual.

    A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning prayer at town council meetings in Greece, New York, rejected the claim of townspeople who argued that the prayer violated their First Amendment right to be protected against the establishment of religion. A previous editorial in this newspaper said the decision was therefore likely to undermine an earlier decision in Vermont barring towns from opening their town meetings with a prayer.

    In fact, the Vermont Constitution is far more explicit than the U.S. Constitution on the right not to be compelled to attend religious observances, and so the prohibition in Vermont against official prayer at public meetings is likely to stand. The case brought by Marilyn Hackett, of Franklin, was argued in Vermont Superior Court, and the judge’s decision was based on the Vermont Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, which supported Hackett’s suit against the town of Franklin, is concerned that towns will take the wrong message from the U.S. Supreme Court decision and introduce prayers that would violate the Vermont Constitution.

    Article 3 of the Vermont Constitution is an inspiring expression of the democratic spirit that was sweeping the colonies in the decade of the American Revolution. It establishes “that all persons have a natural and unalienable right, to worship Almighty God, according to the dictates of their own conscience. ...” Further, it states “that no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of conscience.”

    In the Hackett case, Vermont Superior Court Judge Martin Maley was clear in his ruling that prayer at town meeting violated this article of the Vermont Constitution. To exercise her right to attend town meeting, Hackett was compelled to take part in an explicitly Christian prayer.

    The U.S. Constitution is much less expansive in how it describes religious freedom, saying only: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ...”

    This is the first clause of the First Amendment, which suggests the importance attached to it by the founders. They had reason to highlight its importance. Established churches existed in many parts of the colonies, including Virginia, where the Anglican church was the official state religion, and people were compelled to support it financially. One of the founding principles of the nation was that no one would be subjected to religious compulsion.

    It is not only on the matter of religion that the Vermont Constitution establishes protections broader than the U.S. Constitution does. Article 11 makes explicit the protection against unlawful search and seizure. Article 16 establishes “that the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State.” This provision is not qualified, as the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is, by reference to the need for a “well regulated militia.”

    The clause in the Vermont Constitution that has been especially useful in recent years in establishing principles of equality is Article 7, the common benefits clause. This clause established that the government was “instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community” and not for the advantage of any individuals or groups. It was the foundation for the historic cases establishing the right to equal educational opportunity and equality in marriage.

    Thus, if residents in New York find themselves compelled now to attend religious observances in order to conduct public business, that’s because they don’t have a constitution as broad as Vermonters do in the protection of individual rights.

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