Upper Valley families, MVCS sue Vermont over policy on transgender athletes

Emily Handley, of Poultney, shoots over Mid Vermont Christian players, from left, Lydia Dickey, left, Rebekah Roberts, and Jorja DuPlessis in Quechee, Vt., on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Jacqueline Oberg, of Poultney, is at left. Poultney won 42-14. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Emily Handley, of Poultney, shoots over Mid Vermont Christian players, from left, Lydia Dickey, left, Rebekah Roberts, and Jorja DuPlessis in Quechee, Vt., on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Jacqueline Oberg, of Poultney, is at left. Poultney won 42-14. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-27-2023 8:28 PM

Two Upper Valley families are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Vermont’s rules on transgender athletes in high school sports, arguing that the state’s inclusive policies violate their religious beliefs and are discriminatory.

The lawsuit also asks the court to order the defendants to pay “nominal” and “compensatory” damages to the plaintiffs and take actions to prevent Mid Vermont Christian School in Quechee from being excluded from accessing a tax-payer funded tuition program.

The federal lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington on Nov. 21 by a conservative Christian litigation group that specializes in religious cases on behalf of MVCS and two families — one from Quechee, the other North Hartland — who together have four children enrolled at the K-12 school.

Earlier this year, the state barred MVCS from participating in athletic tournaments in the state after it forfeited a girls basketball playoff game in February rather than compete against a team with a transgender student-athlete. MVCS refused to have its team play against the Long Trail School, on the grounds that a transgender player on the Mountain Lions’ roster cast doubt on “the fairness of the game and the safety of our players.”

That decision led the Vermont Principals Association, the governing body for high school sports in the state, to indefinitely ban MVCS’ teams from playing in VPA-sanctioned contests, citing violations of the organization’s “gender-fair” and “gender identity policies.”

MVCS’ stance also resulted in the school losing tuition money from Vermont towns that offer school choice and pay for tuition for their school-aged residents to attend other communities’ public high schools or state-approved independent schools.

“Vermont, through its Agency of Education and Vermont Principals’ Association, requires private, religious schools like Mid Vermont Christian to adopt the state’s view on human sexuality and gender — namely, that sex is mutable and biological differences do not matter — as a condition to participate in the state’s tuition program and athletic association. Doing so violates the First Amendment rights of Mid Vermont Christian, its students and families, and other faith-based schools by preventing them from practicing their religious beliefs about sexuality and gender,” Alliance Defending Freedom, the group which prepared the 71-page complaint, claimed in a news release.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are five individuals in their capacities as public officials acting on behalf of the state, including Heather Bouchey, interim secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education; Jennifer Samuelson, chairwoman of the Vermont State Board of Education; Jay Nichols, executive director of Vermont Principals Association; Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent and Cornish resident Christine Bourne and Orange East Supervisory Union Superintendent Randy Gawel, of Piermont, along with the Hartland and Waits River Valley school boards.

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MVCS Head of School Vicky Fogg referred questions for comment to Alliance Defending Freedom, which is based in Arizona. Inquiries to attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom listed on the lawsuit were referred to a spokesperson.

Named as the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Chris and Bethany Goodwin, of Quechee, and Nathaniel and Dawna Slarve, of North Hartland. Each couple has a son and daughter who attend MVCS. Chris Goodwin is also the coach of the school’s girl’s basketball team.

The lawsuit states that the Goodwins and Slarves each enrolled their children at MVCS “because of Mid Vermont Christian’s academic programs, athletic offerings, and Christian-based instruction and beliefs.”

But “Mid Vermont Christian and its students — including the Goodwins or Slarves — now cannot participate in VPA sports or activities, including the VPA’s 2023 winter and spring 2024 sports for which schools are still creating schedules,” the lawsuit states, causing them “irreparable harm.”

Furthermore MVCS and its students “will also no longer be able to participate in the VPA’s ‘Member-to-Member Program’ through which students can play sports at schools they do not attend if the students’ schools do not offer the sport,” the lawsuit states, adding that “multiple students from MVCS have participated in that program, including one male student who can no longer play VPA baseball due to the VPA’s action.”

The lawsuit states that the Hartland School Board initially paid tuition for the Slarves’ children to attend MVCS but then “recouped that payment” from the school “because (it) was not approved as an ‘independent school’ by” Vermont’s Department of Education and the Vermont State Board of Education.

“Because Defendants Bourne, Hartland School Board, Gawel, and Waits River Valley School Board have recouped town tuitioning payments, and are withholding future town tuitioning payments, MVCS has been forced to cover the cost of tuition for those students who sought to participate in the town tuitioning program,” the lawsuit states.

The loss of tuition paid by towns damaged the school financially, according to a spokesperson for Alliance Defending Freedom.

“MVCS has in fact lost tuition payments for students desiring to participate in town tuition,” Jacqueline Ribeiro, the spokesperson, said via email on Monday.

Alliance Defending Freedom has won 15 U.S. Supreme Court Cases, an “80% win rate,” the group states on its website.

The lawsuit, titled Mid Vermont Christian School v. Bouchey, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Kevin Doyle. Doyle, a career federal prosecutor before being named to the federal bench in 2020, attended schools with strong religious affiliations, including St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City, N.J., Georgetown University as an undergraduate — where majored in classics — and Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

Before he entered law, Doyle was a high school La tin and German teacher.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.