Constitutional Assaults: The Right’s Attack On State Constitutions

Church-state separation language in state constitutions is under fire.

Heads up, residents of Oklahoma: There’s a move afoot to strip your state constitution of its strong language protecting separation of church and state.

Rep. Jason Nelson, an Oklahoma City Republican, has proposed a ballot initiative that would ask voters to remove Article 2, Section 5, of the state constitution. This just happens to be the part of the constitution that separates religion and government.

Oklahoma, like a lot of states, has very specific church-state language. The provision in question states, “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”

Nelson and his allies want to remove this provision to clear the way for voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools. The Rules Committee has already passed House Joint Resolution 1081 by an 11-1 vote, and now it faces a vote in the full House.

Americans United is speaking out and has written letter to state officials, urging them to oppose the change.

Those of you outside of Oklahoma should be concerned as well. Across the country, state constitutional church-state provisions are under attack. In Florida, the issue will appear on the ballot this November. Proponents there tried to rig the language to make the change sound benign. Americans United and its allies stopped that, but that vote goes on.

Americans United is working to defend church-state provisions in Georgia, Alaska and Missouri. The problem could surface elsewhere.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court let us down when it upheld Ohio’s voucher plan aimed at the city of Cleveland. Since then, advocates of church-state separation have relied on state constitutional provisions to knock down vouchers in some states.

The right wing has seen these victories and realizes that state constitutions are an important second line of defense in protecting taxpayers from mandatory support for religion. Their answer is to attack those provisions.

The irony is rich. The Religious Right, which so often claims to revere tradition, is willing to trash the basic freedoms found in state constitutions to promote its goal of taxing everyone to pay for the religious education of a few.

Stay alert. This is a nationwide problem. Your state may be next.