School Vouchers Cross Church-State Divide,
AU Tells Fla. Lawmakers
Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green traveled to Tallahassee in February to warn Florida legislators that vouchers are unconstitutional and oppose the adoption of any bill providing tax aid to private religious schools.
Green testified before the House Select Committee on Transforming Florida Schools on behalf of Americans United's 3,500 Florida members and four state chapters. During his testimony, Green pointed out that vouchers have never been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court nor any lower federal court. He noted that only the Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld vouchers.
"When you add in the two federal cases, the record is seven courts to one ruling that vouchers are unconstitutional," Green said. "This figure does not include the three U.S. Supreme Court decisions striking down tuition reimbursements. By any standard, this is not a rousing endorsement of vouchers. The overwhelming opinion of courts at the state and federal levels is that vouchers are unconstitutional."
Vouchers are a hot topic in Florida these days. Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has proposed a voucher program for public school districts deemed to be "failing." The bill, H.B. 751, refers to vouchers as "private school opportunity scholarships." It has the support of many Republican lawmakers, who now hold majorities in both chambers of the Florida legislature.
Some Democratic lawmakers have complained that GOP members of the legislature are determined to ram vouchers through without a proper hearing. "We're not seeing a discussion. We're seeing a railroad on greased tracks," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat.
In other news about vouchers:
New Mexico: The House Education Committee has voted to shelve a voucher bill proposed by Gov. Gary Johnson (R), most likely killing the plan for this year.
Johnson had proposed giving 100,000 students vouchers worth about $3,000 for one year then expanding the program to include all New Mexico students. The measure, H.B. 303, was introduced in the House by R.C. "Dub" Williams (R-Glencoe).
Johnson conceded that the plan is unlikely to pass this year, after the committee voted it down 9-6 on Feb. 27. Democrats later said they might be willing to support a pilot voucher plan that would allow businesses and other groups to receive state money to educate at-risk students.
Johnson's proposal is so radical that even Roman Catholic Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe opposes it. Sheehan told the Albuquerque Journal that he still favors an experimental voucher plan but that Johnson's idea goes too far. "We are concerned that a full-blown voucher program could be harmful for our public schools," Sheehan said.
New York: New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew has threatened to quit if Mayor Rudolph Giuliani pushes a voucher plan through the Board of Education.
"The chancellor has been clear with his board, with the mayor and with his staff that on principle he could never support vouchers in the New York City public school system," an anonymous source close to Crew told The New York Times. "He feels that it is the beginning of the end of public education, period, if you start funneling taxpayer dollars into private education."
The city school board is divided 3-3 over the idea, with one member, Terri Thomson of Queens, undecided. Observers say that even if the board passes the plan, it will face legal challenges in court. State education officials indicate the scheme may be vulnerable because there is no state regulation that permits communities in New York to experiment with vouchers.
Georgia: The state Senate has rejected a bill that would have established a voucher plan for children in "failing" public schools. Voting 31-23 along party lines in mid February, senators killed the so-called "HOPE Scholarship Act," introduced by Sen. Clay Land (R-Columbus).
Despite the defeat, Land promised to try again. "We're not done," he said. "We're going to continue to push forward."
Critics disagreed. "We need to improve public education. We don't need to destroy public education," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker (D-Augusta). "[This bill's] whole intent is to dismantle brick by brick public education in this state."
Pennsylvania: Gov. Tom Ridge (R) has proposed a $600 million, five-year "supervoucher" proposal aimed at several areas of the state. Under the plan, students in "distressed" school districts would take the entire amount of the state's per-pupil allocation, which varies from $2,000 to $4,000 depending on the region, and shop for private schools. Public schools would lose the money departing students take with them. The plan would be limited to six counties and eight cities.
Teachers' unions and supporters of public education have vowed to strongly oppose the Ridge proposal.
Illinois: Several tuition tax credit bills are pending in the Illinois legislature. The measures would allow religious school patrons to take tax credits for tuition and other expenses. Gov. George Ryan (R) supports the proposals.
Arizona: A voucher proposal narrowly passed the Arizona House March 16. Republican lawmakers have tried repeatedly to push vouchers through in recent years.
Catholics Gear Up For New,
Nationwide School Voucher Push
Leading Roman Catholic school officials met in Washington in February to plan new strategies for winning tax support for parochial schools.
The National Catholic Educational Association's Feb. 4-7 meeting was designed, organizers said, to give "a shot in the arm" to the school choice movement. Participants framed the issue as one of social justice and said their ultimate goal is to secure state-financed tuition for all parents who desire Catholic education for their children.
"The idea was to bring people together and understand where we are nationally and with that information be armed to go back to their states and dioceses and develop a plan for where they are," NCEA President Leonard DeFiore told Education Week.
U.S. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) urged that states begin by giving parochial schools more support for transportation and instructional materials. "There's a whole lot more I believe states could be doing for Catholic schools through vehicles that are perfectly constitutional," said Voinovich, who supported vouchers during his tenure as Ohio's governor. "I'm not sure what I can do here in Washington, but I'll do all I can."
Another speaker, insurance magnate J. Patrick Rooney, urged more action on the political front. He said Catholics should work to "convert the Democrats" on the voucher issue, noting that many Catholics are members of that party.
Rooney said church officials should portray vouchers as a way to help the poor. "We should go to the Democratic leadership and say, 'Remember your roots.'" Rooney said.
AU Wins Battle Over Ten Commandments
In South Carolina
The Charleston, S.C., County Council violated the First Amendment by erecting a display of the Ten Commandments on government property, a state judge ruled in March.
Acting in a case brought by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union, Judge R. Markley Dennis Jr. said the Constitution "bans governments from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief....[T]his court has little choice but to find that the resolution at issue, and the subsequent display of the Ten Commandments, were in violation of the [separation of church and state] because they endorsed religion in general and Judeo-Christianity in particular."
Americans United filed suit on behalf of three local residents after Councilman Tim Scott erected the plaque outside council offices in May of 1997. (One of the plaintiffs was Sharon Robles, head of Americans United's South Carolina Chapter.) Dennis had earlier ruled on a motion for summary judgment that the plaque must come down.
The March decision in Young v. County of Charleston will probably end the controversy. Although Scott said he wants the county to pursue an appeal, few of his fellow members on the nine-member council are interested in that option.
In other news about Ten Commandments displays:
Georgia: Officials in Lumpkin County, Ga., agreed to remove a Ten Commandments display from the local courthouse when Americans United and the Georgia ACLU threatened to take legal action. After receiving a letter from AU Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan, County Attorney William M. Brownell Jr. wrote, "Upon careful consideration of this issue, the Commissioner has agreed to take down the Ten Commandments display from the Lumpkin County Courthouse."
The plaque was posted at the request of the Rev. Joel Crotzer of Holy Evangel Ministries. "The Lord founded this nation," he told The Dahlonega Nugget, the local paper. "All other laws are secondary to God's laws. There is no separation of church and state."
However, Walter Bell, president of the Georgia Americans United chapter, told the news media, "The plaque needed to be removed. It violated both the First Amendment and Georgia's constitution. The organization that put it up was clearly trying to force governmental approval of its religious dogma."
Arkansas: The House of Representatives has approved a measure that says the Ten Commandments may be displayed at government facilities, including public schools. The bill passed on a 51-18 vote in March. It has stalled, however, in the Senate Education Committee.
Tinky Winky Update:
America Laughs, Falwell Fulminates
In the wake of widespread public ridicule for "outing" Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, the Rev. Jerry Falwell has issued a statement in his own defense saying it was all a set-up to make him look foolish.
The March issue of Falwell's National Liberty Journal contains a front-page article by Falwell headlined, "I Didn't 'Out' Tinky Winky." In the piece, Falwell insists that he has never seen "Teletubbies" and that the original piece saying that Tinky Winky is gay was written by the newspaper's senior editor, J.M. Smith.
But Falwell refused to back down from his beliefs about Tinky Winky's sexual orientation. Noting that some gay activists had hailed Tinky Winky as a gay icon, he wrote, "As a Christian, I believe that role-modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to children."
Smith ran an article in the same paper defending his beliefs about Tinky Winky. Headlined, "Tinky Winky Is The Tip of the Iceberg," the article accused Hollywood of promoting "a vast homosexual influence in popular sitcoms and dramas....Considering the dramatic influx of homosexual themes in modern television, it should come as no surprise that there might appear gay subtexts in a few TV shows -- even shows designed for children."
Continued Smith, "[W]hen an apparently naive character such as Tinky Winky is becoming a symbol of 'gay pride,' the National Liberty Journal feels it is not only appropriate, but necessary, to document this occurrence to our 295,000 readers. Parents have a right to know and decide for themselves if their children should be watching the series."
Falwell also blamed Associated Press reporter David Reed for writing "a devious story...which left the false impression that Jerry Falwell had personally launched an attack on the Teletubbies in general and Tinky Winky in particular. This is what I call yellow journalism."
A statement on Falwell's personal website (www.falwell.com), asserts, "This entire controversy is the worst form of yellow journalism....clearly designed to stereotype and damage Dr. Falwell."
The flap began last February after Americans United leaked information about the National Liberty Journal's criticism of Tinky Winky to the Associated Press as a way of educating the public about Falwell's extreme views. (The monthly is edited and published by Falwell with support from his Thomas Road Baptist Church.)
Once it hit the AP wire, the story quickly went nationwide. Editorial cartoonists had a field day, late-night talk show hosts made jokes at Falwell's expense and several newspaper columnists weighed in. Sentiment was almost uniformly critical of Falwell.
In January, Falwell stirred controversy when he told a pastors' conference in Kingsport, Tenn., that the Antichrist prophesied in the Book of Revelation is a Jewish male living in the world today.
Football Prayer Kicked Off The Field In Texas
By Federal Appeals Court
Public school students may choose to "solemnize" a graduation ceremony with a prayer but cannot do so at football games, a federal appeals court has ruled.
In an opinion released March 1, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said football games are different because they do not share the "singularly serious nature of graduation."
The dispute arose in the Santa Fe, Texas, Independent School District, where two anonymous parents filed suit against the district in 1995, claiming that prayers before football games violated the separation of church and state.
The school district, in defending the prayers, also asked the court to overturn restrictions from a previous ruling that say graduation prayers must be "non-sectarian" and "non-proselytizing." In 1996 U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent approved football game prayers, as long as they met those conditions.
The appeals court disagreed in part. Although it allowed "non-sectarian" prayer at graduations led by students, it threw out football game prayers entirely. "The prayers are to be delivered at football games -- hardly the sober type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer," wrote Judge Jacques Wiener for the 2-1 majority.
Dissenting Judge Grady Jolly criticized the majority for its "remarkable holding" that "for the most curious reasons, the First Amendment allows speech at graduation ceremonies but bars speech at sporting events."
The school district is considering appealing the Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anyone But Al Gore?:
Robertson Approves GOP Candidate Field
As far as television preacher Pat Robertson is concerned, it almost doesn't matter who the Republicans nominate for president next year -- anyone is preferable to the likely Democratic alternative, Vice President Al Gore.
During a March 11 press conference unveiling a new Christian Coalition "get out the vote campaign," Robertson was asked about the current crop of GOP candidates. Robertson had been an early supporter of U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who later decided to skip the race. He has not stated another preference.
Saying he is "very pleased" with the Republican field, Robertson added, "Any of them, in my opinion, are going to be a lot more acceptable than Al Gore." He added that he believes all of the GOP contenders currently in the race oppose legal abortion.
Critics say Robertson's comments are further evidence of the partisan nature of the Christian Coalition, which claims to be a non-partisan organization.
Robertson said he believes the GOP front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is "profoundly pro-life." Bush has stated that he favors a constitutional amendment banning most abortions but that he does not believe the party should put a lot of work into that goal because the American people don't support it.
In other news about religion in politics:
Texas: On the eve of announcing a presidential exploratory committee, Gov. George W. Bush appeared at Second Baptist Church in Houston where he urged religious people -- but not churches -- to get involved in politics. "Any time the church enters into the realm of politics, the church runs the real risk of losing its mission -- the teaching of the word of God," Bush said. "But I want to make this clear: We will welcome the presence of people of faith in the political process."
The remarks, delivered at both Saturday and Sunday services, may have fallen on deaf ears, however. Second Baptist has been heavily involved in Republican politics, and in 1996 Americans United reported the church to the Internal Revenue Service for endorsing candidates in a GOP precinct race.
Virginia: Former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn has agreed to serve as president of the Catholic Alliance, an organization spun off from Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.
Robertson created the group in October of 1995 as a way of increasing Catholic participation in the Christian Coalition. But the effort was a flop, and the Coalition cut the group loose in 1997.
Flynn, a Democrat, told The New York Times, "Our focus will be in solidarity with the poor, the needy and the immigrants." He added that the group will oppose legal abortion and same-sex marriages. Based in Oakton, Va., the Alliance has an annual budget of $1.2 million and claims 125,000 members.
California: Republican moderates have failed in their attempt to deny the chairmanship of the state party to John McGraw, a Religious Right conservative who describes abortion as "the issue of the century."
Frustrated moderates ran their own candidate during a party convention in Sacramento last February but could not get him elected. Moderates say the state GOP's emphasis on social issues is costing the party votes.
"It's suicidal," moderate Bob Larkin of Simi Valley told The New York Times. "The right wing doesn't care if they lose. They'd rather be right and pure. But we're losing members at the rate of 415 a day. We'll lose more Republicans over the time of this convention than will be here as delegates."
Last November Democrat Gray Davis trounced social issues conservative Dan Lungren in the governor's race. Republicans have seen their numbers shrink in the state Assembly and Senate as well.
In other news from California, Democratic Party officials are under fire for distributing food through churches in an effort to increase voter turnout in a special election last March.
Days before the election, party officials distributed fliers offering $5 vouchers good for a whole chicken and potato salad redeemable at area grocery stores. The vouchers could be picked up at eight locations in Oakland by voters who showed a voting stub. Seven of the locations were churches.
Beth Miller, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's office, said it appears that no laws were broken. Miller admitted the scheme "comes very close to the perception of buying votes" but added, "They've adhered to the letter of the law."