Should You Pay Taxes

To Support Religious Schools?


Who should make the decision about how much money you contribute to religious groups — you or the government? Most Americans would have no trouble answering that question. All of us want the right to freely make our own choices about religion. Yet an increasingly influential coalition of religious and political leaders is working to undercut that right by requiring taxpayer support for religious schools. The fate of church-state separation hangs in the balance.

Legislative measures that would divert millions of dollars from the public treasury into religious schools are being considered in many state legislatures across the country. Some provide for tuition vouchers. Other measures push for tax credits, textbook and transportation subsidies or other forms of assistance.

Ironically, this drive comes at a time when our public schools are more financially hard pressed than ever. Nine out of ten of our nation's children attend public schools, yet some politicians are asking the American people to accept inadequate funding for public schools while they enact new, expensive programs for religious and other private schools. What's going on?

A powerful alliance of political and sectarian interests has set its sights on tax subsidies for religious schools. Religious Right activists and lobbyists for the Roman Catholic hierarchy are pressing their demands on both the state and national level.

Religious Right leaders have made their position clear. For example, wealthy TV preacher and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson regularly attacks America's public education system, calls for tax aid for private religious schools and insists that "the Constitution says nothing about the separation of church and state!"

Observed Robertson, "They say vouchers would spell the end of public schools in America. To which we say, so what?" Religious Right political organizations in Washington frequently lobby aggressively on behalf of tax aid to religion.

The late TV preacher and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell often bashed public schools. He claimed the public school system was "damned" and promoted private Christian schools. "I hope to live to see the day," he once said, "when, as in the early days of our country, there won't be any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!"

Today, Falwell's alarming vision lives on through a range of Religious Right political groups like the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America and others that champion vouchers, tuition tax credits and other forms of tax aid to sectarian education.

The Religious Right has influential allies on this issue. The Roman Catholic bishops have sought government support for their parochial schools for decades. Many Catholic schools have closed in recent years due to dwindling enrollments. Some church leaders want a taxpayer bailout for their private school system. But it is not the job of government to prop up Catholic schools or indeed any religion's projects.

Nevertheless, many shortsighted politicians have responded favorably to this religious school aid crusade. The movement has powerful friends in Congress and many state legislatures. Even the U.S. Supreme Court, once a faithful defender of the "wall of separation between church and state," has let down its guard in several instances.

It's time for Americans who believe in strong public schools and church-state separation to speak out. Consider the following points.

How Religious Schools Operate

Private elementary and secondary schools are usually religious in character. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over eighty percent of all private school students attend religiously affiliated schools. Four out of ten private school students attend Roman Catholic schools. Most of the rest attend schools operated by fewer than a dozen other faiths. (In recent years, fundamentalist Christian academies have opened in significant numbers.)

These religious schools do not operate like public schools. Many of them saturate their entire educational program with the sectarian doctrines of the sponsoring religious groups. Children may be refused admission on grounds of religion, gender, academic ability or family income. Church membership and theological viewpoint are important factors in hiring, with administrators and faculty members often selected (or rejected) on the basis of religion. Some religious schools have fired teachers for getting a divorce, for marrying outside the faith or even for expressing opinions on public issues that contradict denominational dogma.

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

—Benjamin Franklin

At religious schools, worship services are held frequently, and both believers and nonbelievers are often required to attend. History, literature and other courses are taught from a sectarian viewpoint. Fundamentalist religious dogma is sometimes offered in science classes instead of accepted scientific concepts. Some schools teach that their faith is the only true one, and other religions are disparaged as 'false'.

Religious authorities are free to make these decisions without regard to public opinion, and such practices are perfectly legal. Indeed, churches that operate private schools are exercising the constitutional right of religious liberty. These denominations see their schools as a vital part of their teaching ministry, as much a part of their evangelism program as worship services.

The schools' religious character, however, also demonstrates why Americans should not be required to finance them. Giving public funds to sectarian schools is same thing as forcing taxpayers to place their hard-earned money in the collection plate.

Americans generously support a wide variety of religious institutions and schools and do so voluntarily. Our houses of worship are among the best attended in the world.

But religious school aid programs would require all Americans to contribute to the churches and other houses of worship that operate private schools, whether they believe in the religion taught there or not. Because taxpayers have no say in the operation of those schools, "taxation without representation" would result.

In addition, tax aid for sectarian schools would subsidize the segregation of schoolchildren along religious lines. A diverse society such as ours can hardly afford to do that.

Ninety percent of our nation's schoolchildren depend on the public schools for an education. Only 10 percent of America's students are enrolled in private schools. Scarce public resources should be designated for public purposes, not private ones.

And keep in mind, religious schools are certain to face government controls if they accept public funding. Many religious leaders recognize this fact of political life and have refused to join in the demand for tax support of their schools.

Perhaps most importantly, any form of taxation for religion would violate the principles the United States was founded on. Consider some history.

The Fight For Religious Freedom

America was colonized in part by families seeking religious freedom. These refugees fled the nations of Europe where church and state were united and dissenters faced ostracism, jail or death. Unfortunately, many of these same refugees set up similarly oppressive arrangements on these shores, giving their own religion favored treatment and punishing anyone who disagreed.

From the early days of our nation, misguided religious groups sought to compel all citizens to contribute their tax dollars to sectarian instruction. Fortunately, courageous leaders in both the religious and political communities stood up and said, "No!"

In 18th-century Virginia, for example, Enlightenment thinkers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson joined forces with religious dissenters to free fellow citizens from the bondage of state-established religion. Through their efforts, a bill requiring taxpayers to support "teachers of the Christian religion" was defeated. Instead, the Virginia legislature in 1786 passed Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.

Five years later, following Virginia's example, the first Congress proposed adding to the U.S. Constitution a Bill of Rights. This set of amendments included provisions for religious freedom and church-state separation. The American people through the First Amendment declared that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."

For many years the U.S. Supreme Court barred most forms of tax aid to religious schools. By the late 1980s, however, the high court began allowing some kinds of "indirect" aid. In a troubling decision in 2002, five justices voted to uphold a program in Cleveland, Ohio, that gave tax funding to religious schools through tuition vouchers. As a result, voucher advocates are now pressing for the enactment of similar programs all over the country.

The People Speak

Referenda On Vouchers and Other Tax Aid To Religious and Private Schools

New York196772%28%
District of Columbia198189%11%

It should be noted, however, that the Supreme Court did not rule that states must adopt voucher programs — only that they may do so under certain conditions. This decision has shifted the voucher battle from the courtrooms to the legislatures and Congress.

As legislators debate the issue, it's important to remember that the American people remain strongly opposed to religious school aid schemes. In 23 referenda he since 1967, voters have resoundingly rejected ballot proposals designed to direct tax aid to parochial and other private schools. (See chart.) Voters in California and Michigan in 2000 rejected vouchers by a two-to-one margin. Exit polls showed that voters from every racial, religious, political and socio-economic group cast ballots against vouchers in both states. Voters in Utah — generally considered the most conservative state in the union — voted down vouchers 62-38 percent in 2007.

Keep Church And State Separate

For many Americans, President John F. Kennedy summed up the religious school aid issue well when he said, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute...where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference."

But citizens should not assume that our rights are secure. In light of the Supreme Court's voucher ruling, religious school aid advocates are lobbying Congress and the state legislatures for programs that divert public funds to private religious purposes.

In short, our legacy of religious liberty is in danger. The nation's vital public school system is being placed in jeopardy at the same time. If these vital features of American life are to be preserved, all Americans must come to their defense.

Should taxpayers finance religious schools? To maintain meaningful religious liberty in America, the answer must be, "No!"

A well-organized and well-funded campaign is under way to undermine the separation of church and state in America’s public schools. Aggressive religious pressure groups are pushing school boards nationwide to change the curriculum to conform to their doctrines. Battles have erupted all over the nation, and your community may be next.

Advocates of "creationism," "creation-science" and "intelligent design" are among the most active in this area. Backed by national Religious Right organizations, proponents of these ideas seek to drive evolution from the science classroom and replace it with their interpretation of the Bible. If they succeed, church-state separation and sound science education may be irreparably harmed.

Around the country, disputes have arisen over the teaching of creationism, or its closely aligned cousin, "intelligent design" (ID), in public schools. Aggressive Religious Right activists are working feverishly to undercut the teaching of evolution by insisting that students be exposed to "both theories."

This approach threatens the separation of church and state and sound science education. Creationism and its variants are religious doctrines, not science. While some religious believers accept the validity of these ideas, many others do not. In addition, the scientific community is in overwhelming agreement that creationism and its more modern variants are not legitimate science.

In its traditional form, creationism is a literal reading of the Book of Genesis repackaged as science. It makes several claims that clash with modern scientific understanding. For example, supporters of this viewpoint contend that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that humans lived alongside dinosaurs.

Other advocates of creationism concede that the Earth is ancient and admit that evolution may operate in a limited capacity or on lower forms of life. Yet they reject the idea that humans evolved because, they say, people are the products of a special creation by God.

Tellingly, when trying to reconcile disputes over issues such as the age of Earth and the evolution of lower life forms, advocates of creationism turn to the Bible to buttress their arguments, not the scientific laboratory. In fact, virtually all of the groups in America promoting creationism are incorporated as religious ministries. Leaders of these organizations are often fundamentalist clergy who speak openly of their desire to cast doubt on evolution and win new converts to their faith. This is not in any way a true scientific movement.

On the surface, intelligent design appears to be something different. ID advocates claim that they have uncovered scientific evidence that an intelligent force, i.e. God, created humankind and the universe. The concept sidesteps some of the more far-fetched claims of traditional creationists and does not address issues such as the age of the Earth.

But just below ID’s surface lurk many of the same discredited anti-evolution arguments that have been promoted by creationists for years. It seems obvious that ID is a form of "creationism lite," deliberately created by fundamentalists to get a foot in the door of the public school science classroom.

A Long-Running Battle

Fundamentalists have opposed the theory of evolution since Charles Darwin conceived it. This issue has been prominent in many states lately because Religious Right activists are gaining political power. They are pressuring state and local school boards to water down or remove evolution from the curriculum.

This fight has deep roots in America. At the turn of the 20th century, some states had religiously motivated laws banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1925, Tennessee teacher John Scopes was convicted of violating a state statute barring instruction about evolution. (His conviction was later overturned on a technicality.)

Many people believe that the creationists were humiliated by the Scopes trial and went into a period of withdrawal after it was over. In fact, fundamentalists simply shifted tactics and assumed a lower profile but continued their crusade. They began pressuring textbook publishers to water down material about evolution in science textbooks, and many did so.

The launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in October of 1957 seriously rattled the American scientific community. There were numerous calls for better science education in public schools. In response, science instruction was beefed up in many schools, and biology classes were improved. Evolution was reintroduced in many areas, but a problem remained: Many states still had anti-evolution statutes on the books.

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an Arkansas law that banned public school instruction about evolution (Epperson v. Arkansas). Undaunted, creationists began pressing legislatures to pass laws mandating "balanced treatment" between evolution and "creation-science." The Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law like this in 1987 (Edwards v. Aguillard), holding that it was obviously religiously motivated.

Creationists continued to regroup. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s they repackaged their ideas under several different names, among them "evidence against evolution" and "the theory of abrupt appearance."

But these efforts were also non-starters. Contemporary anti-evolutionists did not really begin to gain traction until the formation of the Discovery Institute, an outfit based in Washington state that promotes intelligent design.

A closer look shows that intelligent design remains a religious concept. The "designer" whom ID proponents herald could only be God. They have offered no other plausible candidates. (Some ID boosters have actually suggested that a space alien could be the designer - an assertion that can hardly be taken seriously by science. It also begs the question: Who "designed" the space creature?)

Creationism In The 21st Century

One of the most visible threats to the teaching of evolution is intelligent design. At first glance, ID appears to have some key differences from standard creationism. It strips away some of the more implausible claims of traditional creationism and professes a secular approach.

Yet a closer look shows that ID remains a religious concept. The "designer" whom Religious Right proponents herald could only be God. They have offered no other plausible candidates. (Some ID boosters have actually suggested that a space alien could be the designer an assertion that can hardly be taken seriously by science. It also begs the question: Who "designed" the space creature?)

ID proponents have conducted a slick public relations campaign aimed at local schools. They often bypass state officials and apply strong-arm tactics directly to local school boards. Board members, who in most parts of the country are democratically elected, can be subject to considerable community pressure. Thus, ID proponents are primarily waging a political, not scientific, battle.

In fact, ID backers’ attempts to publish peer-reviewed research have failed. While they have published many books, these works have been subjected to great criticism in the scientific community.

Some ID advocates are forthright about their religious agenda when speaking to sympathetic audiences. Phillip Johnson, considered a founding guru of the movement, told a religious gathering in 1999 that he uses ID to convince people of the truth of the Bible and talk to them about "the question of sin." From there, Johnson said, people are "introduced to Jesus." Jonathan Wells, another prominent ID proponent, says he was persuaded to criticize evolution after becoming a member of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

In December 2005, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled against ID promotion in Dover public schools. The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision sends a clear message that intelligent design is constitutionally unacceptable in science classes.

Proposing ID as an "alternative" to evolution is not the only tactic being used to push evolution out of schools. Opponents also use disclaimers, either printed inside a textbook or read aloud by a teacher or school administrator, as another way to undermine the scientific validity of evolution. This kind of effort has the same goal as the ID movement to cast doubt on the theory of evolution but doesn’t usually put forth any specific alternative, scientific or otherwise.

It’s worth pointing out that ID and other forms of creationism are grounded only in certain varieties of religion. Most major denominations made their peace with evolution long ago because the scientific evidence for it is so compelling. Today, only militantly fundamentalist groups tend to oppose evolution.

Thus, efforts to claim that evolution is somehow hostile to religion are easily disproved, as are claims that evolution promotes a "godless" universe. In fact, evolution says nothing about the origin of the universe or the meaning of life. It merely addresses the non-controversial idea that living things have the ability to change over time.

Nor is evolution incompatible with conservative theology. Pope John Paul II was hardly considered a theological liberal. Yet on at least two occasions John Paul stated that there need be no conflict between religion and science on this matter. The Bible, the pope said, "does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven." In October of 1997, John Paul issued a statement asserting that "fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis."

What Is At Stake

Why is this issue important? At its core, creationism undermines the wall of separation between church and state. Parents are free to teach their children religious concepts at home and in houses of worship. That is not enough for the creationists. They want to expose all children to those concepts in public school science classes. They want to use a captive audience to spread their theology. This they cannot legally do. Public schools, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said, are not allowed to promote religion.

Furthermore, creationism and ID threaten good science education in America. The core findings of evolutionary theory are no longer questioned by the scientific community. Evolution is taught without controversy in secular universities all over the nation. Failing to teach it in high school does a disservice to our students and leaves them ill-prepared for higher education.

Resistance to standard science instruction could cause our country to fall behind other nations. Religious opposition to evolution is practically non-existent in Western Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia. As a result, the United States’ position as the leader in cutting-edge biotechnology is now in jeopardy. Our country will not continue to lead in this area if our students are not adequately educated about modern science.

In light of this, claims that schools should teach both evolution and some form of creationism and let young people decide are unpersuasive. There is no longer a controversy in the scientific community about the validity of evolution. Pretending that there is only does a disservice to our students. We cannot substitute theology for science in our classrooms and expect to remain the world leader in increasingly important scientific fields.

Because so many different religions and cultures have different beliefs about origins, public schools must take care not to elevate any one understanding over others. For this reason, intelligent design and other forms of creationism must be kept out of our science classrooms.