- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2001

By Nat Hentoff

The core of the argument as to whether public tax funds should go to religious schools is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. How high must the wall be between church and state? All the other arguments, pro and con, evade the constitutional point.

The teachers unions claim that such vouchers would take away public funds that should be used to improve public schools. This argument certainly does not convince many low-income parents black, white, Hispanic, Native-American whose children attend failing schools, thus greatly limiting their future. There are, however, alternatives to using public funds for religious schools. The increasing number of private groups raising money for scholarships to private schools, including those affiliated with religious institutions, are acting constitutionally. So are public charter schools that are not connected with religious institutions.

Another alternative is the loosening of district lines so that parents can choose good schools outside of their districts. I have reported on a considerable number of such public schools.

But, ultimately, the Supreme Court will decide a vouchers case quite likely Simmons-Harris vs. Elman, a case that originated in Ohio on the basis of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The clause states that "Congress (and later the states) shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

In Lemon vs. Kurtman (1971), the Supreme Court set up a three-pronged test as to whether public funds could be spent on parochial schools and for other religious purposes. With regard to vouchers, the enabling law must have a secular purpose; its primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.

Two years later, Committee for Public Education vs. Nyquist came before the Supreme Court. It became the controlling case on the question of giving tax money in the form of vouchers to religious schools. The Supreme Court has since made some incursions into the Lemon vs. Kurtman test, but the Nyquist case still stands. And in 1988 (Bowen vs. Kendrick), Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "Any use of public funds to promote religious doctrines violates the Establishment Clause."

Many supporters of this kind of voucher claim that the public money does not go directly to the religious school but rather to the parents, who may then decide to give the voucher to the school as tuition. But the Nyquist decision says that whether the funds go to the school directly or indirectly the effect of the aid is unmistakably to provide desired financial support for nonpublic, sectarian institutions.

The Nyquist decision also said that there has to be an "endeavor to guarantee the separation between secular and religious functions and to ensure the State's financial aid supports only the former" if tax money goes to a religious school. This is where the Ohio voucher law is particularly vulnerable, constitutionally speaking.

Most of the schools getting voucher money are in Cleveland. Eighty-two percent of those schools are sectarian, and 96 percent of the students in the voucher program attended religious schools in the 1999-2000 school year. And this is crucial the program places no restrictions on the religious schools' use of public funds.

In deciding that the voucher program violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals' majority decision pointed out that the curriculums of the religious schools included "instruction in religion, and mandated participation in religious services," and that there was an "interweaving of Christian doctrines with science and language arts classes."

For example, the mission statement of the St. Rocco School states that "religious truths and values permeate the whole atmosphere of the school." Here is a quote from the Saint John Nottingham Lutheran School's parent handbook: "The one cardinal objective of education to which all others point is to develop devotion to God as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier." Calvary Center Academy's handbook for parents and students requires that students "pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands."

If this is not the entanglement of church and state, then the word "entanglement" has no meaning any longer. In 1822, James Madison, the principal architect of the First Amendment including the First Amendment's Establishment Clause wrote in a letter:

"We are teaching the great truth that Governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government." Therefore, Madison said, we must respect "the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions."

Nat Hentoff's column for The Washington Times appears Mondays.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide