FFRF denounces Guam legislative approval of religious charter schools

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation condemns the Guam Senate for overriding Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s veto of a bill permitting taxpayer-funded religious charter schools in the territory.

Earlier this month, the Guam Legislature passed Bill 62-37 authored by Sen. Chris Barnett, which seeks to “remove any discrimination or distinction between private sectarian or nonsectarian applicants for converting existing schools or for new charter schools.” Guerrero properly vetoed the bill, since it would allow religious schools to become public charter schools and be fully paid for by taxpayers in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Organic Act. The Senate override negates the governor’s intervention in favor of a secular public education system. The measure continues the upsetting trend of government entities trying to fund religious education, following in the footsteps of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, which recently approved the establishment of the first publicly funded religious charter school in the nation.

The Guam legislative sponsors insisted that recent Supreme Court rulings, such as Carson v. Makin, Espinoza v. Montana and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, would permit such sponsorship. Demurred Guerrero: “The referenced cases … do not in fact support the creation of state-sponsored religious schools. Rather, these cases authorized government assistance to individuals, families or nonprofit organizations in the form of tuition assistance, scholarships or grants.” She explained that the major distinction between Bill 62 and the cited cases is that with the Guam schools “the government did not exercise regulatory authority over the school receiving the government money.”

The governor noted in her veto statement: “I cannot sign a law that authorizes the use of taxpayer dollars to sponsor the establishment of religious schools, even if the school teaches my religion. As state actors or governmental entities, Guam’s charter schools must respect the Constitution and the Organic Act of Guam, which clearly prohibit public schools from discriminating based on religion, or promoting or coercing students to engage in religious activities.”

Following the governor’s meticulously reasoned veto, Attorney General Doug Moylen issued a legal opinion claiming that the bill doesn’t violate the First Amendment. Moylen misconstrued the facts and relevant case law to reach the erroneous conclusion that “there exists no legal impediment, including our First Amendment clause, from allowing the Guam Legislature to move forward in passing Bill 62.”

The governor was correct in noting that Bill 62-37 violates the U.S. Constitution and the Guam Bill of Rights, exposing the government of Guam to potential legal action. Guam cannot constitutionally establish a religious public school system — and taxpayers cannot be forced to pay for religious schools.

There is an obvious reason why there has only been one attempt to create a religious charter school in the entire country, and litigation regarding that school is already under way from FFRF and other legal groups. The absence of religious charter schools is because charter schools are state actors, and the government cannot fund religious education.

“FFRF is interested in potential legal action to protect the rights of Guam citizens and students, and we urge citizens concerned by this override to contact us,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The override by the Legislature is a disgraceful dereliction of its duty to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and preserve freedom of conscience.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country, including members in Guam. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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