Bizarre Brief: Pastors Tell Texas Court That Religious Schools Have ‘Religious Freedom’ Right To Public Support

Essentially, these pastors are trying to use the First Amendment to justify a church-state merger, at least when it comes to education.

Texas public schools are in trouble. In 2011, lawmakers decided to slash $5 billion from the state’s education system. That action lead to a lawsuit, and with the matter now before the Texas Supreme Court, it seems the Religious Right senses an opportunity to grab some taxpayer dollars for its system of private Christian academies.

A group of conservative clergy known as the U.S. Pastor Council submitted a brief to the Texas high court, arguing that, yes, the state is obligated to educate its children, but that mission can and should be accomplished through both public and private institutions. In fact, the brief says, for the state to fund only secular schools is discriminatory.

What could possibly justify this line of thinking? “Religious liberty,” of course!  

“Is the exclusion of religious schools [from public funding] based on religious bigotry?” the brief asks. “Thus, the exclusion of religious schools for no valid economic reason demonstrates a religious bias and hostility and prevents the free exercise of religion. Declaring the current system inefficient and that an efficient system must include all qualified suppliers without regard to religion, will avoid the religious issue and clearly not violate the [First Amendment].”

Essentially, these pastors are trying to use the First Amendment to justify a church-state merger, at least when it comes to education. Given the background of the U.S. Pastor Council, this contradictory argument that distorts the idea of religious freedom comes as no surprise. Baptist News Global said the group previously opposed a Houston ordinance that banned gender- and sexual orientation-based discrimination.   

It’s also notable that one of the council members is the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas. Americans United has tangled with Jeffress many times. AU reported this “Christian nation” advocate to the IRS more than once for pulpit politicking, including an incident in 1998 during which Jeffress, then pastoring a church in Wichita Falls, encouraged his congregation to “vote out the infidels who would deny God and his word” in a city council election.

Why was Jeffress so angry with that city council, you might wonder? He was on a censorship crusade at a local library, demanding the removal of two LGBT-friendly books: Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate.

Jeffress was given the gay-themed books by a parishioner and refused to return them, although he later paid the library $54 in fines. The books were eventually replaced but moved from the children’s section to the young adult section. Jeffress, however, simply would not drop the matter and pledged to take the issue before the council and unseat council members who opposed removing the books.

Just as Jeffress was wrong to try to censor books back then, he and his allies are completely wrong about the constitutionality of direct taxpayer funding for religious schools. The Texas Freedom Network (TFN), an Americans United ally that monitors education issues in the Lone Star State, said the pastors’ argument is totally off base.  

“If tax dollars aren’t funneled into sectarian schools, somehow that’s a violation of religious freedom,” TFN’s Dan Quinn told the Rev. Welton Gaddy on “State of Belief Radio” last month. “That just sort of turns religious freedom on its head.”

The Pastor Council said in its brief that “parents have the God-given fundamental right to direct the education and upbringing of their own children.” Whether or not you believe God gives you rights is a personal matter, but it’s true that parents have a powerful role to play in the education of their offspring. That does not mean, however, that religious private schools have the right to public funds.

If parents want a religious education for their children, they are welcome to it – at their own cost. And if sectarian schools find they cannot survive without raiding the public coffers, that says quite a bit about the value of their services.