Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering


The U.S. Supreme Court handed down an alarming decision today on school voucher programs that imperils true religious liberty, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“The ruling eviscerates a founding principle of our secular republic — that citizens must not be taxed to support religion, including religious schools,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. She adds that the ruling would appear to severely undercut specific safeguards in state constitutions prohibiting the union of state and church.

In Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court, which held that a neo-voucher school funding scheme violates the “No Aid” to religion clause of the state Constitution. The state court struck down the entire neo-voucher scheme as it applied to all private education, religious and secular. Nearly 90 percent of Montana’s private schools are affiliated with religion. Christian parents, represented by the pro-voucher Institute of Justice, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to declare that No Aid clauses violate the federal Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, illogically ruled that religious schools were indeed being singled out.

“A state need not subsidize private education,” the majority judgment states. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

The absurdity of the majority decision is laid bare in a dissenting opinion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, points out that the Montana Supreme Court had made no distinction between religious and nonreligious schools.

“Because Montana’s Supreme Court did not make such a decision — its judgment put all private school parents in the same boat — this court had no occasion to address the matter,” the dissent states. It adds: “The state court struck the program in full. In doing so, the court never made religious schools ineligible for an otherwise available benefit, and it never decided that the Free Exercise Clause would allow that outcome.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has a stinging dissent of her own.

“Today’s ruling is perverse,” she writes. “Without any need or power to do so, the court appears to require a state to reinstate a tax-credit program that the Constitution did not demand in the first place. [The court] rejects the Religion Clauses’ balanced values in favor of a new theory of free exercise, and it does so only by setting aside well-established judicial constraints.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation had filed an 18-page friend-of-the-court brief in November cogently arguing that true religious liberty would be endangered if the court strikes down the provision of Montana’s Constitution that prohibits funding religious education.

“Religious liberty is imperiled in this case,” its brief asserted. “This case is not about discrimination [against religion]; it is about government-compelled support of religion. Every Montana citizen has the right not to be taxed to fund religion. If this court abandons this basic principle, we will have reached a disastrous moment in American history: the era of government-compelled tithing.”

This unfortunate and misguided decision deals a great blow to the separation of state and church, as well as the sovereignty of states to govern according to the will of their citizens. It virtually guarantees that citizens of the more than 30 states whose constitutions included No Aid to religion clauses may be taxed in order to support religious schools at some point in the near future, regardless of their own views on religion or which religious denomination they may belong to. The 26 percent of nonreligious taxpayers will be injured the most.

James Madison, later the architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, famously defeated a Virginia proposal in 1785 to pay the salary of Christian teachers, calling even a three-penny tax on citizens supremely immoral. The No Aid language in many state constitutions dates to the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty of 1786, written by Thomas Jefferson, who deemed it “sinful and tyrannical” to tax citizens to support ministries or religious schools.

The Supreme Court’s decision does not address whether some restrictions placed on funds going to religious schools would pass constitutional muster. States may still be able to restrict funding on the basis of “religious use.” For example, a restriction on direct funding of religious education classes may be permissible.

An ironic additional consequence of such a ruling may be to bring down regulation on churches and religious schools due to the flow of public money into religious schools. In short, the judgment in favor of the plaintiffs will negatively and fundamentally alter the state-church relationship in place since the nation’s founding.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation decries the high court’s blow to our secular public school system in order to fund religious institutions.

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Freethought Radio -- June 25, 2020

Ryan Jayne

The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently played a part in moving forward an essential bill through the Hawaii Senate that helps victims of sexual crimes get justice.

FFRF Attorney Ryan Jayne submitted written testimony to the Hawaii Senate Judiciary Committee in support of H.B. 2177, which extends the statute of limitations for the survivors of childhood sexual abuse to bring civil claims against their abusers. FFRF strongly urged the committee to approve this measure. It would extend the statute of limitations to within 50 years of the survivor’s 18th birthday. According to CHILD USA, the average age at which child abuse is disclosed is 52.

“The abuse, assault or rape of children has lasting physical, emotional, and mental effects,” Jayne told the committee members on behalf of FFRF. “We should not be surprised that it takes years, or even decades, for these victims to face what has happened to them, let alone take the difficult steps of seeking redress and justice. Our laws should give access to justice to these survivors when they are ready, not shut the door on them because they took what some might consider to be ‘too long’ to deal with the earth-shattering consequences of their abuse.”

Many states have investigated child sexual abuse perpetuated by clergy employed by various Catholic dioceses and other churches, and have found the problem’s scope to be massive, FFRF pointed out. (FFRF tirelessly records clergy criminal sexual abuse in a regular column titled “Black Collar Crime” in its newspaper Freethought Today.) Considering the severe psychological trauma that can result from childhood sexual assault and the extreme power that churches hold over many communities, it is unsurprising that many survivors do not pursue legal action until long after they reach adulthood. That’s why this legislation is urgently needed, FFRF insisted.

This bill is not a free ticket to target churches for money, as some churches are insinuating. (The Roman Catholic Church has squandered huge sums to defeat efforts to extend statutes of limitation for child abuse survivors, spending more than $5.3 million on such lobbying in Pennsylvania alone since 2011.) Survivors still have the burden of proof, and still must find and submit evidence. The longer they wait, the more difficult that becomes. H.B. 2177 simply gives them the chance to try, FFRF underscored.

The Hawaii Senate committee seems to have been in agreement with FFRF’s perspective. H.B. 2177 has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously (and the committee gave a shoutout to the state/church watchdog for being in support of the bill).

“We’re more than happy to share our expertise with legislative bodies,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We are especially heartened in this instance that we’ve had a role in bringing a vitally important piece of legislation closer to law.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members across the country, including many members in Hawaii. FFRF protects the constitutional separation between state and church, and educates about nontheism.

Photo of FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne by Chris Line. 

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The Humanist Voice

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