When the details and effects of the DC Voucher Program are examined, there should be no question that should be considered an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. I’m not addressing the program’s efficacy or effect on public schools – others can debate that – but regardless, it is an affront to religious liberty and the nonreligious community.
Since commenters seem skeptical, I’ll explain, laying out the case I used in my debate last night.
Nobody should be taxed to pay for another person’s religious training, nor should the government encourage certain religious practices over others.
In a 5-4 decision in Zelman v. Simmons Harris, the Supreme Court narrowly found the particular voucher program in Ohio to be constitutional. But it did so specially mentioning the importance of requirements and provisions in the Ohio program – provisions that are absent in the DC program.
The first difference is a familiar problem. Unlike the Ohio voucher program, which prohibits participating schools from discriminating, the DC program has a specific exemption for religious schools participating in the vouchers. They are allowed to discriminate in their hiring on the basis of religion, meaning that teachers’ access to federal money is affected by their religious affiliation. This should sound familiar – it’s the biggest ongoing controversy with the Faith-Based Initiative program.
Another key difference is that, unlike the Ohio Voucher program, the DC Voucher Program gives parents incentives to choose religious schools. In Zelman, the Supreme Court wrote that such programs could not have “financial incentives that skew the program towards religious schools.” They found that the Ohio program accomplished this by requiring a copay and capping the cost. In their program, private secular and private religious schools would cost the same for these students, and each would cost more than the public, non-sectarian schools.
DC Vouchers are different. There’s no copay, and the government will give a set maximum of $7,500. That’s conveniently enough to cover the whole tuition for most private religious schools – but not private secular schools. A Rutgers study that came out in July 2009 found that the average cost of religious schools was about $7,700 per child. The cost for secular schools was twice as high. They concluded that the difference has
“clear implications for voucher programs, since current voucher policies are funded at amounts that cover costs at only a select subset of private schools. They essentially push students into Christian Association and Catholic schools, pricing out independent (non-religious) schools and Hebrew schools.”
The program is focused on low-income families in bad neighborhoods. Offering $7,500 towards private school doesn’t mean the parents can choose any school they want – it means parents can choose any religious school they want. They can’t afford to pay the additional seven or eight thousand dollars.
It is fundamental to the separation of church and state that government should never encourage or endorse certain religious practices over others. And the DC Voucher Program does just that, encouraging parents to send their children to religious schools and receive religious educations.
We might hope that the money would only be going toward a secular education. But many religious schools receiving money through the program don’t even make an effort to separate out their sectarian religious teachings.
For example, the Ambassador Baptist Church Christian School (quite a name, huh?) website states that its “primary mission and goal is to train the students in the knowledge of God and the Christian way of Life and to provide them with an excellent educational experience…. God’s truth is infused throughout the curriculum and is reinforced in chapel each week.”
It’s not an isolated case. New Macedonia Christian Academy boasts about delivering “a high quality Christian education to our students while instilling a strong Christ-centered academic foundation.” The Dupont Park School encourages “each student to develop a personal relationship with God” and strives to “prepar[e] students for the service of God’s Church, Country, Community and above all for Eternity.”
What is this if not religious instruction? As the Supreme Court said in Everson vs. Board of Education,“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 from they may adopt, to teach or practice religion.”
Now, that outrages me as a taxpayer. But it’s also children who are being harmed. Unlike the Wisconsin Voucher program, the DC program has no required “opt-out” option for students who wish not to participate in the religious activities. Students are priced into religious schools where they have no guarantee that they won’t be proselytized.
And it’s happening. The 2008 US Department of Education Report found that, when students leaving the program were asked why they left, 8% said that “religious activities at the private school make the child uncomfortable”. I find that number to be remarkable, and it doesn’t tell us how many children are put into uncomfortable religious situations but don’t leave the program.
Nonreligious Americans are a growing population, and the American Religious Identification Survey report that came out this month found that 18% of DC residents are not affiliated with a religion. How are they supposed to participate in the DC Voucher program? The way pricing is arranged, they can only afford to choose religious schools, but what if they don’t want to be surrounded by a religious climate and receive a ‘christ-centered’ education?
We need to end this program. It misuses taxpayer dollars on religious education and discrimination, it encourages certain religious practices over others, and it puts parents and students into uncomfortable positions of choosing between their wallet and their freedom of conscience.