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School Vouchers v. Establishment Clause

Recently — and somewhat humorously — legislators in Louisiana walked back their support of an educational voucher program that allows parents to use public money to send their children to a number of private institutions, including religious schools. For years, atheists, agnostics and other non-Christians in the US have decried the voucher system as a backdoor to institutionalized Christianity; at first blush, what happened in Louisiana might be thought a small victory for freethinkers.

However, with an apparent blindness for irony, legislators such as state Rep. Valarie Hodges (R-Watson) withdrew their support of the bill only after learning that religions other than Christianity would be included in the program. After withdrawing her support, Hodges told the Livingston Parish News, “We need to ensure that [the voucher program] does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools … I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana….I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools.”

So as not to confuse an international audience, allow me to say the idea that “America’s Founding Fathers’ religion” was Christianity doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Some were inarguably devout and outspoken Christians, but others were deists, and some were outspokenly agnostic/atheistic. Moreover, regardless of what their religion may have been, the Constitution they framed — by way of the First Amendment — clearly bars Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion” — Christian or otherwise. And that is the legacy the Founding Fathers gave us to work with — not their beliefs, but our Constitution.

This somewhat amusing anecdote about Hodges and her flip-flop is given a broader context in our society in a number of ways. First, and where I find humour, is that Hodges’ angst mirrors that felt by non-Christians every time we hear about the amount of public money being funnelled to Christian organizations. For example, according to an article in the New York Times, in 2012 in eight of 50 states, voucher or voucher-like programs “redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets … according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization … Most of the private schools are religious … [but] are insulated from provisions requiring church-state separation because the donations are collected and distributed by the non-profit scholarship groups.”

A second way that Hodges’ flip-flop has a broader context is through our upcoming presidential election. The conservative presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, has as part of his platform an education policy that includes a voucher program. Arguments of religion aside, vouchers have not been shown to provide a better education, and instituting such a program nation-wide at such a nascent point would be ill-considered policy. Few would argue that our schools are not struggling, but we need a president who will offer them help that has been proven to work, based in reality and backed by experts. What we don’t need is a policy based on the broken analogy that school districts are like marketplaces.

While I disapprove both of Hodges’ bigoted stance in singling out Islam and of her belief in Christianity’s privileged place in our society, my hope is that this serves as an example, for some Christians at least, of the importance of the separation of church and state.

In the US, people have the freedom to choose their religion. As stated by the Supreme Court in a 1947 ruling, Everson v. Board of Education, which helped lay the groundwork for future cases distancing religion from public schools, “No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.” In other words, the establishment clause of the First Amendment guarantees us the right (though it isn’t always upheld) not to have to pay, via federal or state taxes, for the establishment of religions we don’t believe in — whether the religion in question is Muslim, Christian or anything else.