Nearly 20 years ago, Betsy DeVos and her husband were the primary funders of an effort to strip the Michigan Constitution’s no-aid clause – the provision that ensures the government doesn’t funnel taxpayer dollars to religious institutions, including private religious schools. Their goal: remove the constitutional barrier to implementation of a private school voucher program. Their effort failed miserably when in November 2000, 69 percent of the voters chose to keep the state’s religious freedom protections in place. The people of Michigan knew that freedom of belief for taxpayers and freedom for faith communities was at stake.
Today, thanks to President Donald J. Trump, Betsy DeVos can now push school vouchers from her helm as the Secretary of Education. Also thanks to Trump, newly sworn-in Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch could be part of handing DeVos the gift she tried to buy nearly two decades ago: a broad decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer could undermine state no-aid clauses across the country, allowing private school vouchers in Michigan and other states.
Let’s back up.
In the 1999 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an Ohio private school voucher program does not violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But, because the constitutions in three-quarters of the states have no-aid provisions, they provide another avenue to challenge voucher programs that fund religious schools. In fact, AU has successfully challenged voucher programs in Colorado and Florida using those states’ no-aid clauses.
Last week, the Missouri constitution’s no-aid provision made an appearance on the national stage when the Supreme Court held oral arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. In this case, Trinity Lutheran Church sought money from the state to resurface its playground. State officials denied the church’s application for funding because the state constitution’s no-aid provision ensures taxpayer dollars do not fund churches. The church then claimed that this provision violates the U.S. Constitution. These no-aid provisions, some of which have existed for a century or two, were designed to protect religious freedom, because religion and belief are stronger without government support. We submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to explain how important these longstanding provisions are and to defend the principle of church-state separation.
If Trinity Lutheran wins, however, state and local governments could be required to give taxpayer-funded grants to houses of worship. And if the decision is broad, it could also mean that the state no-aid provisions can no longer be interpreted to ensure taxpayer dollars do not fund religious schools through private school vouchers.
In short, Trinity Lutheran could open the door to state private school voucher programs, which clearly harm religious freedom.
A broad U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer could pave the way for taxpayer money to fund private schools.
Vouchers, of course, aren’t just bad for religious freedom. They are also bad education policy. Voucher programs divert desperately needed resources away from the public school system to fund the education of a few voucher students. They also have proven to be ineffective, lack accountability to taxpayers and deprive students of rights provided to public school students.
That is why we fight back efforts in statehouses and Congress to adopt voucher programs every day. And here’s how you can take action to help: Learn more about the problems with school vouchers on the National Coalition for Public Education website (Americans United co-chairs the coalition) and email your state and federal legislators that you oppose the adoption of any school voucher program. And if Trinity Lutheran is decided the wrong way, we’ll need your help more than ever.