Imperiled Provisions

The Dangerous Attack On State Constitutions

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a misguided ruling upholding an Ohio school voucher scheme. Since then, AU and our allies have fought such taxpayer aid to religious schools in state courts, relying on the strong church-state language many of these documents contain. We’ve had some successes.

Our opponents are angry. Their response has been to assail state constitutions or attempt to persuade courts to ignore the plain language found in them.

Two alarming developments are currently under way. In Douglas County, Colo., the local school board has approved a voucher plan. This is a strange turn of events because the county, a prosperous and growing area between Denver and Colorado Springs, is known for its high-quality public schools. Parents report high degrees of satisfaction.

So why the voucher plan? A small number of people would like to send their children to private (mostly religious) schools at taxpayer expense. School board members have embraced the idea. They have ignored several provisions in the Colorado Constitution that bar tax funding of religion and, in response to a lawsuit filed by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, have asked a state court to bless their scheme.

What’s going on in Florida is even more alarming. Legislators there are attempting to gut the church-state separation language of that state’s constitution in what many believe is an effort to pave the way for vouchers and other forms of aid to religion.

Florida lawmakers want to replace the state’s strong church-state protections with new provisions they say will ensure “religious freedom.” They are being duplicitous. In fact, if Florida voters approve this change, it will eviscerate religious liberty by forcing people to pay taxes to support churches and church schools. That’s why Americans United and allied organizations are challenging the deceptive ballot amendment wording in court.

State constitutions have long been a vital second line of defense in the struggle to defend church-state separation and religious freedom. When federal courts let us down, we can turn to state courts. Two-thirds of the states have explicit language barring the use of tax money to pay for religious schools and other sectarian projects.

Contrary to what the Religious Right and other sectarian lobbies would have you believe, this language does not discriminate against religion. Rather, it reflects a longstanding belief in America: that religious groups should pay their own way and not expect taxpayers to prop up religious schools and other ministries.

The attempt to undermine church-state separation in state constitutions is dangerous and reckless. It must be vigorously opposed.