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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal includes major increases in taxpayer funding to subsidize vouchers for primarily religious schools, the Freedom From Religion Foundation charges.

The governor's budget includes a $73 million increase for voucher schools and a new $21 million program for a statewide "special needs" student voucher system. The special needs voucher program is not supported by any special education group in the state. Under the terms of Walker's plan, the amount of a school voucher would increase by 8.6 percent for K-8 schooling (up to $7,050) and 21.9 percent for high school students (up to $7,856).

The state currently allots an average of $4,899 in general aid per student to public school districts. The new voucher program would extend beyond Milwaukee and Racine into nine school districts: Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee. The expansion would be the largest since vouchers were introduced in Milwaukee in 1990.

"Funding religious and private schools should not be done on the public's dime," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Voucher proponents are trying to chip away at Wisconsin's constitutionally created system of public education. It is alarming that some politicians want taxpayers to increasingly subsidize religious institutions."

In Milwaukee, more than 21,000 of the current 25,000 enrolled voucher students attend religiously affiliated schools. In the newly created Racine program, 10 out of 11 schools are religious. If vouchers are extended, parochial schools stand to gain the bulk of the $94 million budgeted.

Roots to spread

The encroachment of vouchers into nine new school districts, with the potential for others to be added, will provide fertile ground for voucher schemes to grow across the state. Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, who opposes the measures, said, "This is phase one of a wide-open school voucher program for the state."

Caps on enrollment and income limits as part of Wisconsin voucher programs have regularly been broadened. Initially, enrollment will be capped at 500 students in the first year and 1,000 students in the second year. The original voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990 was capped at 1 percent of enrollment, which equaled roughly 1,000 students. The Legislature uncapped enrollment as part of the 2011-13 state budget, which had been set at 22,500 students.

The proposed expansion into Green Bay comes despite strong local opposition in 2011 and 2012 to the possibility of a voucher program there. Walker took action to limit voucher expansion into Green Bay last year, signing into law a bill that prevented vouchers beyond Racine and Milwaukee. The proposal to include Madison schools has also been widely criticized.

No accountability

FFRF has long objected to the lack of public accountability for voucher programs. "Where public money flows, public accountability must follow," Gaylor said.

In an editorial last month, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott highlighted two low performing voucher schools, the Clara Mohammed School and Carter's Christian Academy. In 2011, few students in either school tested proficient in reading or math by state standards.

Both schools have a religious focus, with Clara Mohammad School teaching "a Qur'an-guided journey toward active global citizenship" and Carter's Christian Academy using fundamentalist Christian instruction materials that are "presented from God's point of view."

Despite the low performance on state exams, enrollment at both schools has increased. Elliott said, "Parents will continue to send their students to these schools, whether for religious reasons or because they mistakenly believe school leaders are up to the task of providing a sound education."

Misguided political effort

The $21 million special needs voucher plan is indicative of the motivation behind voucher expansion. Special needs advocates have said private vouchers would take away funding from public school programs and would not provide any assurances that private schools would meet the education needs of students with disabilities, as public schools are mandated to do by federal law.

"Special needs vouchers are a product of calculating politicians and lobbyists who want taxpayer money to flow to parochial schools. It's not coming from concerned parents," said Gaylor.

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FFRF fights back over Big Mountain Jesus

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a brief on Feb. 15 fighting the federal government's motion in support of a permanent shrine to Jesus in the Flathead National Forest, leased at no cost since the 1950s to the Knights of Columbus.

The statue is near Kalispell, Mont.

"A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be," begins the brief by attorney Richard L. Bolton, on behalf of FFRF.

"The suggestion that a permanent shrine with a six-foot statue of Jesus Christ, standing by itself in the forest on federal land, does not convey a religious impression is unsupported by evidence or common sense."

The Forest Service permit itself notes the permit is "for the purpose of erecting a religious shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run."

"Enforcement of the Establishment Clause does not evince hostility to religion," FFRF points out.

The brief details how local FFRF members have come into unwanted exposure, conferring associational standing upon FFRF. FFRF member William Cox, previously noted he has skied past the shrine many times and continues to ski on Big Mountain. During a fall 2012 deposition, Cox called the statue "religious in nature and offensive."

Two other FFRF Montana members coming into contact with the shrine submitted declarations, including Doug Bonham, who lives close to Big Mountain and first encountered it about seven years ago while skiing past it.

"My immediate reaction was that the statue was grossly out of place and an oppressive reminder that Christians are a controlling and favored group in the Flathead Valley." His daughter, 15, now regularly skis on Big Mountain and also considers it "ridiculously out of place."

The statue "literally and figuratively looms over the Valley" and is "perceived as a reminder of the Christian religious values that the majority in the Valley promote," Bonham declared.

Read Bonham declaration

Pamela Morris, a third-generation Montanan and daughter of the founder of Showdown Ski Area, first encountered the shrine in 1957 at age 15 as a member of a ski team. Although she was then part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, "the statue felt startling out of place: instrusive. Since then I have avoided the area: I backpack, fish and camp where nature has not been so violated in Montana."

Morris noted she would enjoy skiing Big Mountain again, "if it were a welcome site for all who love nature." A Unitarian and FFRF member, she added: "I would support any religious group's efforts to build on private land, including a mosque in my neighborhood, but I oppose any building on public land."

Read Morris declaration

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes in her declaration the "number of vitriolic" phone calls and threatening emails received by the FFRF office after its complaint over the Jesus Shrine went public and each time the case gets publicity. Many messages warn, "Don't come to Montana."

"As a co-founder who has been an active part of FFRF since the beginning and who became co-president in 2004, I have personally observed that the public reaction to requests to end Establishment Clause violations often devolves into ad hominems, hostility and veiled or unveiled threats to FFRF and members who are state/church separation advocates."

Federal officials are alleging "no one" ever complained about the Big Mountain Jesus before. Gaylor noted, "It is my experience that, over the years, government officials often ignore or may fail to keep or hold onto complete records of Establishment Clause complaints."

She gives as an example the claim in the Supreme Court decision in Van Orden v. Perry that no one except Mr. Van Orden had ever complained to the government about a Ten Commandments monument at the Texas Capitol.

Gaylor entered into the record her personal knowledge that both Madalyn Murray O'Hair, as head of American Atheists, and Anne Nicol Gaylor, as FFRF president, had previously complained.

One of FFRF's several complaints asking for removal of the religious edicts, a letter Annie Laurie Gaylor herself wrote to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2001, is entered into the record.

Read Gaylor declarationExhibits

The federal government and the Becket Fund, a Roman Catholic legal society representing the Knights of Columbus, claim the Jesus statue and setting are similar to the facts in Van Orden, in which the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas statehouse grounds was approved by the high court, because they likened it to a "museum."

FFRF's legal brief puns: "Treating a ski slope as a museum would be a dangerously slippery slope."

The case, FFRF v. Chip Weber and U.S. Forest Service, CV 12-19-M-DLC, is in the courtroom of President Obama appointee U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

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