Religious School Vouchers: Subsidizing Division

Supporters of voucher subsidies for religious schools constantly tell Americans that "educational choice" is good for students and families. What they won't admit is that "choice" is a myth when it comes to religious schools. Because they serve a religious interest first and foremost, these schools can and do refuse to admit students on a wide range of grounds.

This simple fact was highlighted about two weeks after the Supreme Court's June 27 decision upholding voucher aid for religious schools. An Associated Press story with the dateline of Lexington, N.C., concerned a young man named Ben Holmes who had just received word that he was no longer welcome to attend Sheets Christian School.

The problem? Administrators at the private Baptist academy had learned that Holmes and his family are Roman Catholic. As a private institution, Sheets has the right to deny admission to any student, school administrator Dan Hightower said.

This incident is a reminder that private religious schools aren't like public schools. Public institutions admit all children, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. What a student believes about God simply isn't relevant to a public school.

But it sure is to a religious school. And as long as it is, and as long as these schools insist on applying religious criteria to all that they do, they should not receive one dime of tax aid.

In light of the high court's June ruling, some commentators have speculated that, over time, America's education system could shift from the public sector to the private. If that happens, many schools will operate along religious lines. If vouchers become commonplace, taxpayers will be footing the bill for the type of discrimination Ben Holmes experienced.

Segregating education along religious lines does no one any good, as residents of Northern Ireland are finally starting to figure out. Researchers at the University of Ulster have just published a study about the effect of religious segregation on young children. They found that at the age of 3, only a small number of children expressed religious bigotry. By age 6, when most children in Northern Ireland have completed two years of religiously segregated education, as many as 15 percent were expressing such views.

Even young children, the study found, could articulate preference or disdain for certain colors, flags and symbols identified with Catholicism or Protestantism. One of the study's authors expressed concern over "the indirect effect that our segregated school system is having on the development of young children's attitudes and awareness."

Public schools exist primarily to educate youngsters in a variety of academic subjects. But along the way, they also teach students of all races, religions and socio-economic levels how to get along together. Our country is stronger for that. We would be foolish to throw that away for the false promises of the voucher advocates