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.
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.
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.