Supreme Blow to Public Schools and Wall of Separation

The wall of separation between church and state came tumbling down yesterday, when a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision upholding voucher tax support of religious schools.

“The Supreme Court not only carved a giant hole in the wall of separation,” said Freedom From Religion Foundation president Anne Gaylor, “but it has dealt what could very possibly be a death blow to our historic system of secular, public education.”

Fully 96.6% of the $33-million, 6-year-old Cleveland voucher program has gone to religious schools–a majority of them Roman Catholic. Justice Souter, joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer, noted in his dissent: “For perspective on this foot-in-the-door of religious regulation, it is well to remember the money has barely begun to flow.”

The majority, led by Chief Justice (“the-wall-of-separation-is-a-bad-metaphor”) Rehnquist, upheld the voucher scheme to fund religious schools by citing a “severe educational crisis,” the claim that students have been given choices in the past within the public school system, and because private choice is “voluntary.”

These legal irrelevancies are manufactured excuses, not constitutional arguments.

As Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent, “Parental choice cannot help the taxpayer who does not want to finance the religious education of children.”

Ohio taxpayers are being granted no choice but to subsidize religion, to pay for bibles, crosses, religious instruction, rosaries, chapels, salaries of religious teachers, and an educational system permeated throughout with sectarian religion.

It is farcical to maintain that the voucher scheme is not direct subsidy of religion. Just as in the Milwaukee voucher program, state checks for vouchers are sent directly to the Cleveland private schools, mostly Catholic, for parental endorsement.

“Establishment Clause concern for protecting the Nation’s social fabric from religious conflict poses an overriding obstacle to the implementation of this well-intentioned school voucher program,” Breyer stated in his dissenting opinion.

We disagree that the voucher program, 40% of which aids students who are not impoverished, is well-intentioned. The church lobby and religious right have used the spectre of children in underfunded slum schools as a ruse to inaugurate aid to parochial schools, which have been waiting in the wings for this public bail-out. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops officially has been lobbying for aid to parochial schools for more than a century. It seems their lobbying campaign has finally paid off.

Stevens cited the “impact of religious strife on the decisions of our forbears to migrate to this continent, and on the decisions of neighbors in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East to mistrust one another. Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.”

The Foundation noted a study was issued just this week linking religion-segregated schools in Northern Ireland to the continuing hatred between Protestants and Catholics.

“What we are looking at is a disaster for public education. How can taxpayers possibly afford to fund two systems: one secular, the other religious? It would bankrupt the country, and eviscerate the very heart of the First Amendment,” said Gaylor.

Souter’s “hope that the political branches will save us from the consequences of the majority’s decision,” is “not much consolation,” Gaylor said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) founded in 1978 which works to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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