Should all American taxpayers be forced to pay for religious schools? Make no mistake: that is exactly the question before us, and it grows more urgent as each day passes.
Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that “more states than ever before have considered school vouchers this year.” The AP said 30 legislatures have weighed voucher bills in 2011, compared to only nine in 2010. In addition, 28 states have considered tax breaks for private school tuition, essentially a “backdoor” form of vouchers.
The AP says at least six legislatures have passed voucher or tax credit bills so far. The Alliance for School Choice is crowing about the “unprecedented” new or expanded programs in Indiana, Ohio and other states.
What’s going on? It’s nothing less than an all-out war on church-state separation and the public school system. Right-wing political forces and sectarian pressure groups hate public education, and they are determined to divert public resources – my tax dollars and yours – to sectarian and other private schools.
Observers say the voucher crusade is caused in part by changes in the political complexion of state legislatures.
"I think that there's long been an interest among Republican legislators, but this year is the first time they've gained so many seats in so many states and gained majorities," Josh Cunningham of the National Conference of State Legislatures told the AP. "There was a window of opportunity to get these bills passed. It was kind of the perfect timing."
But the onslaught is also caused in part by a behind-the-scenes campaign by wealthy anti-public-school foundations and their political front groups. They are waging a relentless campaign to “privatize” education in America.
Those of us who support public schools and church-state separation must fight this conflict on many fronts. State legislatures and Congress are important, of course. But the courts are a second critical battleground.
This week, Denver District Judge Michael Martinez heard three days of testimony in a lawsuit over a voucher plan pushed by the Douglas County School District. This “experimental” program would allow up to 500 students to enroll in religious and other private schools using $4,575 each in taxpayer dollars.
Americans United and allied groups brought the Larue v. Colorado Board of Education challenge, and we are hopeful that Judge Martinez will block implementation of the Douglas County scheme when he rules next week.
The religious schools signed up to benefit from the voucher subsidies make no secret of their sectarian character. Front Range Christian School , for example, states that “our standard of truth is in Scripture, which we believe to be the inspired and infallible Word of God. If teaching materials or information are in conflict with that standard, the Bible will always take precedence.”
Other participants are just as blunt. Southeast Christian School calls itself “unashamedly creationist” and states that it seeks “to provide a place where the values of the Bible are given authority.” Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran School materials state that its students will “hear about Jesus Christ, their Savior, in personal ways throughout the school day and throughout the curriculum – EVERY DAY.” Valor Christian High School’s application states that the “Bible is the foundation for all our programs.”
Religious schools are free to take this approach to education, but no taxpayer should be forced to subsidize sectarian instruction of this sort. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions
which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.”