Wisconsin's statewide school voucher program is now completely religious in nature — a forewarning for the entire country.
Troublingly, all of the 163 schools that have registered for the statewide Wisconsin voucher program for the 2017-18 school year are religious. Nearly each and every one of these is Christian, with the exception of a single Muslim and two Jewish schools.
This reveals yet again that the voucher system in Wisconsin has been primarily intended as a device for the public to fund religious instruction, especially that pertaining to Christianity. "The fact that taxpayers are paying entirely for a religious education at the statewide level demonstrates the fundamentally religious nature of voucher programs," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The local voucher programs are very similar in character. In Racine, 21 out of 23 schools that registered to participate as voucher schools next year are Christian. In the Milwaukee program, which includes more than 28,000 students, 116 out of 127 schools — 91 percent — are religious.
With the infusions of taxpayer money, Roman Catholic churches in Milwaukee with declining church membership and donations have been propped up. A recent study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research on Catholic parishes in Milwaukee concluded that voucher expansion prevents parish closures and mergers. The study finds that vouchers are the dominant source of funding for many parishes and have greatly reduced closures or mergers.
"This is precisely why the public should not be footing the bill for religious schools," says Gaylor. "The burden to support churches and religiously segregated church schools must be placed on adherents rather than on taxpayers."
Not only do taxpayers prop up Catholic schools, but the study shows voucher support harms and weakens private support for parochial schools and parishes. The typical parish accepting vouchers gets more money from the government than it does in private donations.
In Madison, vouchers have been a boon to Lighthouse Christian School, which has doubled in size in four years and is planning to move to a much larger building. It describes itself as "a ministry of Lighthouse Church ... providing a Christian environment for children" and striving to instill "a love for God." Among grade school offerings is 'bible." The school doesn't teach about evolution.
Vouchers in Wisconsin have grown each year under Gov. Scott Walker, and his budget proposal allows for continued expansion. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling for the voucher program to be ended rather than continue as a drain on public school funding.
With billionaire voucher advocate Betsy DeVos as our new education secretary and President Trump's promise to implement a $20 billion federal school voucher plan, we can ominously expect Wisconsin's model to be replicated on a national level. If the state is any indicator, the results will severely damage our public, secular education system.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is concerned that the Seattle mayor's upcoming State of the City address (on Feb. 21) is scheduled to be delivered in a mosque.
In a letter to the mayor, FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor commend Mayor Ed Murray's intention to stand against "state-sanctioned discrimination by the Trump administration," and agree with his characterization of the Muslim travel ban. FFRF is preparing an amicus brief against Trump's ban based on a religious test, and has publicly condemned it and urged its membership to oppose it.
However, FFRF believes that "the city should not oppose one violation of the Establishment Clause by committing another." An official address at a religious venue sends a message of endorsement of that venue's beliefs. In this case, this incorporates the Idris Mosque's criteria for couples wishing to get married at the mosque, which include a refusal to marry Muslim women and non-Muslim men, approval of the marriage by the parties' fathers or recognized Muslim guardians, (a condition that "especially applies to the bride)" and an agreement on a dowry between the bride's guardian and the groom.
"The Supreme Court has said time and again that the First Amendment 'mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,'" Barker and Gaylor write to Murray. "Signaling endorsement of a religious group while acting as a state official is inappropriate and divisive."
Plus, FFRF underscores, placing the State of the City speech inside a mosque will force citizens — who may be of varying faiths or none at all — to enter a house of worship in order to attend an official city event. Certainly, there are ample appropriate secular locations for such occasions, including City Hall.
FFRF suggests to the mayor there are other appropriate ways of reaching out to Muslims or others of minority religious beliefs (or no beliefs) to convey a message of inclusion, and encourages him and the city to use such avenues. For instance, a public official may, of course, address a congregation on civic (not devotional) matters in his or her official capacity to reach out to constituents and answer questions about their concerns.
FRRF asks that the mayor refrain from giving his State of the City address in any place of worship. It is, at best, ironic, FFRF points out, to respond to a breach of the Establishment Clause by violating it in another manner.
FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with more than 27,000 nonreligious members across the country, including nearly 200 members in Seattle and almost 1,200 in the state at large. There is a sizable, growing population of religiously unaffiliated Americans, including 39 percent of Washingtonians.