The Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowing private religious school
to receive federal funds to pay for computers and other educational
materials has energized voucher movements in California and Michigan,
where initiatives will appear on the states’ November ballots.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion for the 6-3
decision announced June 28, which overturned a previous court’s ruling
Mitchell v. Helms.
The Helms case was originally filed in 1985 by several public school parents in suburban New Orleans. It challenged a variety of federal programs, including a program called “Chapter Two,” which provides computers, software, books and audio-visual equipment — known as “nonincidental aid.” The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the program, saying it violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.
Chapter Two was created as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Now known as Title VI, the measure allocates approximately $16 million annually to private schools, most of which are religious.
“Regrettably, we can now expect religious schools to clamor for an ever increasing number of services paid for with tax dollars,” said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of
Americans United for Separation
of Church and State. “The arrangement approved today will also free up their private resources to promote even more of their religious mission, which is, after all, the central purpose for these schools.”
Justice Thomas rejected the argument that such aid is in violation of the Constitution.
“Respondents’ chief argument — that direct, nonincidental aid to religious schools is always impermissible — is inconsistent with this Court’s more recent cases,” wrote Thomas. “The purpose of the direct/indirect distinction is to present ‘subsidization’ of religion, and the Court’s more recent cases address this concern through the principle of private choice, as incorporated in the first Agostini criterion (i.e., whether any indoctrination could be attributed to the government).
Americans United was disappointed with the ruling.
“The Supreme Court certainly took a sledgehammer to the wall of separation between church and state,” said Lynn. “Thanks to this misguided decision, taxpayers will now be forced to pay for an endless parade of computers and other expensive equipment for religious schools.”
“This is the first time in Supreme Court history that the justices have allowed a resource to be given to parochial schools that can readily be diverted to religious purposes,” Lynn added. “At public expense, religious schools can now have students surf the Internet to read the Bible in religion classes, learn theology from Jerry Falwell or download crucifixes as screen savers.”
But Thomas ruled, “Where the aid would be suitable for use in a public school, it is also suitable for use in any private school.”
Two of the six justices supporting the ruling disagreed with the breadth of Thomas’s opinion. Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer voted with the majority, but filed a separate concurring opinion.
“Though the opinion is disappointing, the silver lining is that this decision gives no aid or comfort to voucher supporters,” Lynn said. “It deals exclusively with materials on loan, not direct cash subsidies for religious education. And most importantly, a court majority rejected the sweeping public funding of religious schools argument presented by Clarence Thomas.”
However, supporters of the decision believe it provides the inertia necessary to win approval of voucher initiatives.
“This Court’s decision ends all debate as to whether or not school vouchers will survive constitutional scrutiny by the Supreme Court,” said Brad Dacus, president of the
Pacific Justice Institute. “The only question remaining now is one of public policy and the will of the people to lay claim to this powerful educational alternative.”
“This will clearly add valuable momentum to an already growing campaign,” added Dacus.
Voters in Michigan and California will decide whether to implement voucher programs. Currently, both Michigan and California have strict constitutional provisions prohibiting state government from giving public funds to religious schools.
The California proposal would distribute $4,000 per student for parents to spend at the school of their choice, while in Michigan, vouchers would be worth $3,100.
“Vouchers are a major threat to religious freedom,” said Lynn. “If these referenda pass, taxpayers will be required to finance private religious education, whether they agree with the religion or not.”
“If families in Michigan and California want to send their children to private religious schools, that’s their right. But it’s unfair to ask all of their neighbors to help finance that choice,” he continued.
Both states have seen voucher initiatives before. Michigan considered similar referenda in 1970 and 1978, and voters rejected private school aid both times — in 1978 by a nearly 3 to 1 margin.
Similarly, California voters rejected voucher proposals in 1982 and 1993.
“American taxpayers should never be forced to support religious indoctrination,” AU’s Lynn concluded. “When the government gives public funds to religious schools, it is ultimately no different than forcing taxpayers to put money in the collection plate.”
However, according to Thomas, even funds given directly to parents does not violate the Constitutional restriction of government-endorsed religion.
“If aid to schools, even ‘direct aid,’ is neutrally available and, before reaching or benefiting any religious school, first passes through the hands (literally or figuratively) of numerous private citizens who are free to direct the aid elsewhere, the government has not provided any ‘support of religion,’” Thomas reasoned.
Proponents of vouchers in California point to the dire straits of the public education system.
According to a statement by
Vouchers 2000, the organization pushing California’s voucher proposal, “The need for immediate change in the way we educate children in California is obvious. Eight out of 10 fourth graders can’t read proficiently, California ranks 50th in the nation in class size, 51st in the number of teachers per student, 51st in the numbers of computers per student and 40th in per pupil spending. According to the Pacific Research Institute, California’s dropout rate for public schools is 33 percent. Now is the time for vouchers.”
“When this initiative passes, schools will be accountable to parents and grandparents and this accountability will improve California’s failing education system,” said Tim Draper, parent and proponent of the education initiative. “It is only fair that every child — regardless of income — have the chance to receive a quality education. Our focus must be on providing California’s children with every tool they need to reach their goals and achieve a prosperous and rewarding future.”
“Under this initiative, everyone wins,” said Draper, a former member of the California State Board of Education. “Parents are given real choices when it comes to educating their children. Kids receive the quality education they deserve. And teachers can get more money, smaller class sizes and more career options.”