Religious School Aid Bills Move Forward
In Florida, Illinois
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's school voucher plan passed the state House of Representatives easily in March, and a similar measure cleared the Senate April 16.
The March 25 House vote (71-49) broke largely along party lines with only six Democrats supporting the measure. An attempt to reconcile the House and Senate versions was pending as Church & State went to press.
Opponents charged that the plan would hurt public schools. "This will go down in history as the day we abandoned public schools," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat. "This is an insidious voucher program that will suck the lifeblood out of our public schools."
The Bush proposal, which refers to vouchers as "opportunity scholarships" would offer stipends ranging from $3,800 to as much as $24,000 for students with special needs. Eligible students will be drawn from public school systems deemed "failing." Participating private religious schools would have to accept students on a random basis and could not exclude applicants on the basis of belief. They also could not require students to take part in religious worship.
Americans United and other opponents of the Bush scheme have flooded the governor's office and state legislature with cards and letters against vouchers. A poll of Florida voters in March found that 58 percent were generally opposed to vouchers. Although a majority of Republican men supported the idea, 50 percent of GOP women were against it.
Americans United's legal team is preparing to file a lawsuit should the Bush plan become law.
Meanwhile, the Illinois House of Representatives has voted in favor of a bill establishing a tuition tax credit plan in the state. The proposal, pushed hard by Chicago Cardinal Francis George, would allow private school patrons to take a 25 percent tax credit for private school tuition, lab fees and book fees, not to exceed $500. It will cost the state an estimated $50 million to $75 million per year.
To make the measure politically and legally palatable, supporters made it applicable for both private and public school parents, although they conceded that public school parents will receive few benefits. The proposal was also appended to a popular education reform measure, enabling it to easily pass the Democrat-controlled House on a 74-41 vote.
In other news about religious school aid:
- Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green testified before a Maryland Assembly panel March 18 against proposed voucher and tuition tax credit legislation. Green pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has never upheld a voucher plan and noted that a long line of high court rulings indicate that government funding of religious schools is unconstitutional. The bills failed to move before the session ended.
- New Mexico Attorney General Patricia A. Madrid has issued an opinion stating that vouchers would likely run afoul of the state constitution. The opinion comes on the heels of a promise by Gov. Gary Johnson (R) to veto the entire state budget unless vouchers are included.
"Although I recognize there will be differences of opinion on this important issue, I do not believe a school voucher program would likely withstand a court challenge given the current language in our state constitution that prohibits giving public money to private schools," said Madrid in a press statement.
Article 12, Section 3 of the New Mexico Constitution forbids any appropriation of tax funds in "support of any sectarian, denominational or private school, college or university."
- Texas legislators have heard opposition to a voucher plan from an unusual source: a Roman Catholic prelate. Monsignor Lonnie Reyes of Austin's St. Julia Catholic Church spoke against vouchers at state capitol conference of anti-voucher religious leaders March 31, the Austin Chronicle reported.
"We fully support families sending their children to religious schools," said Reyes, "but not at taxpayer expense. We know that for tax dollars to be used for religious purposes without state control would be a serious mismanagement of taxpayer money."
- California residents oppose a voucher referendum that may appear on the ballot in March of 2000, a new poll indicates. The Field Poll found that 57 percent of Californians said they oppose the plan, which would give $3,000 vouchers to private school parents. Thirty-seven percent backed the idea. In 1993 California voters crushed a voucher referendum, 70 percent against to 30 percent for.
- Michigan residents oppose vouchers too. A poll commissioned by the state Department of Education and several private groups found 53 percent opposing vouchers or tuition tax credits, while 39 percent approved of the idea. A group called School Choice Yes! is currently trying to place a referendum question on the 2000 ballot.
Protests Cancel School Evangelism By 'Mighty Men'
Officials at a public school in Lebanon, Tenn., cancelled a planned assembly by fundamentalist Christian bodybuilders called the "Mighty Men" after Americans United protested.
The "Mighty Men," who mix feats of strength with personal religious testimonies, were scheduled to appear at Walter J. Baird Middle School March 26. School officials changed their minds after receiving letters from Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
AU Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan warned the school that allowing the "Mighty Men" to appear could spark a lawsuit. Khan noted that she had visited the group's website and found that the "Mighty Men" stated upfront that their mission is to do "God's Evangelism" and described themselves as "devoted Men who through strength, stunts, drama, songs and personal testimonies are showing the world the glorious power of God."
Noted Khan in the letter to Superintendent Andy Brummett and Principal Mark Willoughby, "Allowing such statements to be made at a school assembly constitutes a gross violation of the United States Constitution by the school. Courts have consistently found it unconstitutional for schools to allow school employees or members of the community to make religious presentations to students or to otherwise advance religion."
Brummett later told the Nashville Tennessean that he had believed it would be permissible for the "Mighty Men" to visit the school since a student group, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, had requested it.
Religious Right Plots Next Move In Ongoing 'Culture War'
Some of the Religious Right's most prominent leaders gathered at the Library of Congress on April 13 for a forum on the "next steps towards cultural renewal."
The event, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and the Heritage Foundation, highlighted the growing division within the Religious Right about the role religious conservatives should play in politics. The session was apparently an effort by the Religious Right to reach a consensus on how to proceed in the coming years. If this forum were any indication, however, agreement remains an elusive goal.
The debate comes in the wake of a controversial statement by Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation and godfather of the Religious Right movement. Last February Weyrich issued an open letter concluding that religious conservatives have lost the culture war and recommending they adopt a "strategy of separation" from the rest of American society.
At the forum, Weyrich reemphasized his desire to see Religious Right believers set up their own institutions and "drop out" of a culture he finds deplorable.
"When we looked at the political scene in the mid-1970s, we had a theory about how we were going to affect the culture," Weyrich said. "The theory was that there was a moral majority out there...who agreed with traditional values. We needed to organize these people so they would elect the right people to the Congress, and Congress would advance the cultural agenda. This strategy failed; if there was a moral majority, it has ceased to exist...."
Continued Weyrich, "What I'm saying is we can't rely on politics to advance the cultural agenda. We have to take back the culture by ourselves....I am recommending that conservatives concentrate on parallel structures because the culture is so defective, unless we have parallel structures, we will in fact be sucked in to at least some part of the culture. This is not dropping out of a culture war, it is simply a change in strategy."
A similar message was delivered by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, authors of Blinded By Might, a recently published book that criticizes the Religious Right for failing to place evangelism over politics. Although both delivered brief remarks, Thomas and Dobson (who is unrelated to Focus on the Family firebrand James Dobson) chose to make their main points in a joint statement distributed to attendees. In the essay, Thomas and Dobson supported an approach that separates religious faith and political goals altogether.
"Our future hope does not lie in politics, which in the final analysis is rather trivial," the authors wrote. "It lies in the gospel -- spoken and lived."
Thomas and Dobson were particularly critical of the Christian Coalition's tactics of mixing politics and religion for partisan ends.
"The church must never become a center for political activism," the statement read. "It is not the place for passing out voter guides, petitions or any other type of material that is primarily political....(W)hen Christians forge coalitions in the political system, they should never call their coalitions 'Christian.' Jesus is not a white, middle-class Republican."
Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition, was unconvinced by Thomas and Dobson.
"Changing the culture is a marathon, not a sprint," said Tate. "We are winning. The glass is more full than empty. This effort is long term....If we don't walk off the field, if we stay engaged, I believe we can make a difference."
Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and now president of a Republican consulting firm called Century Strategies, argued that Religious Right activists should operate on twin tracks, evangelizing for their faith while remaining active in politics.
"I just think it's kind of a false, Hobbesian choice," Reed said. "I mean, it's not an either or....We don't have to be at 50 percent plus one to change the country."
Also joining the forum were Don Eberly, president of the Civil Society Project; Carmen Pate, president of Concerned Women for America; Adam Meyerson of the Heritage Foundation; Pat Nolan, president of Justice Fellowship, and Chuck Donavan from the Family Research Council.
Church-state separationists are following the Religious Right debate with great interest.
"I was pleased to see Ed Dobson and others recognize the corrosive effect that the partisan politics of the Religious Right is having on local churches," said the Rev. Ken Brooker Langston, Americans United's Field Director, who attended the event. "But Ralph Reed and Randy Tate made it obviously clear that the Religious Right's intoxication with political power is far from over."
Scalia, Bork Help Domino's Billionaire Develop Far-Right Catholic Law School
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and failed high court candidate Robert Bork have joined Domino's Pizza magnate Thomas S. Monaghan in a venture to create a new ultra-conservative Catholic law school in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Monaghan, who recently sold the Domino's chain for $1 billion, announced last month that he will pour $50 million into the new school, to be called Ave Maria School of Law. It is set to open in the fall of 2000 with about 40 students.
"I think it will be the West Point for Catholic laity in the years to come," Monaghan told the Detroit Free Press.
Bork has already signed on as the school's first professor, and a dean has been hired. The dean, Bernard Dobranski, is currently dean of the Catholic University Law School in Washington, D.C.
Monaghan is also getting help from heavy hitters in the federal judiciary, U.S. Congress and Catholic hierarchy. The Detroit News reported that Scalia visited Monaghan in Ann Arbor to help shape the philosophy of the new school. Members of the founding board include U.S Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), U.S. Appeals Court Judge James L. Ryan and Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York City.
Also serving on the board is Charles Rice, a University of Notre Dame law professor who once recommended that the pope be made a "supralegal arbiter" to pass judgment on the validity of U.S. constitutional law.
Monaghan, a strident foe of abortion and founder of a group of right-wing Catholic businessmen called Legatus, told reporters he decided to start a new law school because, "I'm really disappointed in Catholic education in this country. It's been secularized."
Monaghan and others involved in the project say the school will teach law grounded in the concept of "natural law" -- the belief that Catholic teachings are objectively true and that they transcend secular law.
"Our students will learn that there are certain unchanging fundamental truths of the natural law by which both a lawyer's professional decisions and the validity of all civil law must be ultimately judged," Ryan said.
Dobranski echoed that view, saying, "The rule of law must be founded in a belief that there is an objective, moral order. This is something no law school does effectively."
Michigan already has a Catholic law school at the University of Detroit Mercy, a Jesuit institution. Officials at that school refrained from directly criticizing Monaghan's plan. The Rev. George Lundy, the school vice president, told The News, "The UDM School of Law remains committed to excellent legal education in the post-Vatican II spirit of ecumenism and respect for the rich diversity of our pluralistic society."
Catholic Alliance Has New Leader, Seeks New Image
An organization originally founded to be a Roman Catholic subsidiary of the Christian Coalition now says it hopes to blaze its own trail in politics.
The Catholic Alliance recently chose as its leader Raymond Flynn, former Boston mayor and most recently U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Flynn is a lifelong Democrat who opposes abortion and gay rights. He told The Washington Times that he wants to encourage Catholics to bring the values of Pope John Paul II into the voting booth.
"We have to make it OK for Catholic politicians to reflect those values," Flynn said. "There are a lot of good Catholic people who are looking for a place to go so they can vote their conscience."
The Catholic Alliance was created by Pat Robertson in October of 1995 as an auxiliary to his Christian Coalition. The goal was to increase the TV preacher's political influence in heavily Catholic areas of the country where the fundamentalist Protestant-dominated Coalition is weak. But the effort flopped, and Robertson cut the group loose in 1997.
For a while the Alliance stumbled along with Keith Fournier, formerly the director of Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, acting as president. Fournier stepped down last year, turning the presidency over the Flynn.
The group is being resurrected in part with funds from Dennis Lynch, a New York attorney who serves as chairman of its board. Now based in Oakton, Va., the Alliance has an annual budget of $1.2 million and claims 125,000 members. Flynn said he hopes to increase that to half a million by next year. He will be paid "in excess" of $100,000 and plans to shuttle between the group's Virginia office and his home in Boston.
Lynch downplayed the group's original role as a Christian Coalition front organization, telling the paper, "The fact that we had an origin in the Christian Coalition has no significance." Nevertheless, Flynn's association with the group may be leading him to reassess his political affiliation. Although a long-time Democrat, Flynn told The Times he lost his campaign to win the Democratic nomination for a Massachusetts congressional seat in 1998 because the party refused to support him due to his anti-abortion and anti-gay rights views.
Flynn said the "big tent" of the Democrats no longer has room for traditional values. "And frankly," he added, "I may not want to be in that tent with some of those people."
Third-Grade Student Stands Up To In-Class Preaching Session
A 7-year-old third-grade student in Ridgefield, Wash., has helped put a stop to inappropriate religious activity in her public school by making a stand -- literally.
The child, whose name has not been released publicly, protested when her teacher invited a youth pastor into the classroom to read a Christian story to the class. According to her father, Shary Nassimi, the girl stood up and said, "Excuse me, teacher. I'm Jewish and we believe in God, but we don't believe in Jesus." Nassimi said the teacher told his daughter to sit down and allowed the pastor to read the story.
Nassimi took his concerns to a school board meeting March 25. He told the board his daughter respects her teacher but that the family disagrees with the practice of bringing religion into the classroom. According to Nassimi, his daughter and another Jewish student exchanged painful glances while the pastor read the story.
"I can't imagine the guts my daughter had," he said. Nassimi added, "This is not a Jewish issue. It goes to the core of separation of church and state in this country. We're not asking you to stop ethical teaching. We want you to enforce -- put some teeth in -- the laws we already have."
Although the board failed to act on the matter during the meeting, Superintendent Dale Scott later told the Lewis River News & Kalama Bulletin that the district has taken a number of steps to correct the problem. These included disciplining the teacher, reviewing the district's policy on religion in the classroom and contacting civil liberties groups about providing speakers to run programs on the topic for teachers.
"The bottom line," said Scott, "is that children can't have things occur to them at school, by anybody, that ends up with them feeling less valued, or that there is anything wrong with the beliefs they bring to school from home."
In other news about religion in public schools:
\xb7 A federal appeals court has refused to rehear a school prayer controversy from Texas, despite pleas from Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R). The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had earlier struck down student-led prayers before public school football games, holding that such events do not require "solemnization." At the same time, the court upheld student-led nonsectarian, non-proselytizing prayers during graduation ceremonies. Nine votes were needed for the entire 16-member 5th Circuit panel to hear the case, but only seven judges voted to do it.
Bush had directed his attorney general to file a legal brief urging the entire judicial panel to accept the legal controversy. A spokesman for Bush described him as "disappointed."
\xb7The school board in Slippery Rock, Pa., has voted to ban a group of Tibetan monks from visiting a local elementary school, saying Christian groups would not be given the same access. Labeling the monks "pagans," board member Joan Courtney said, "Other religious groups are not allowed access to our children, so why should they be allowed? Any Christian establishment wouldn't get their foot in the door." Another member, Bill Adams, called the proposal, "just another multicultural, one-world crock."
Supreme Court Skips Utah Legal Dispute Over 'Political' Prayer
The U.S. Supreme Court will not hear a Utah man's lawsuit challenging prayers before city council meetings.
The court without comment on March 29 turned down a further appeal of the case. The legal challenge was brought by Tom Snyder, who wanted to protest the city council's practice of opening its sessions with prayer by reading his own unorthodox version of an invocation.
Snyder's prayer was addressed to, "Our mother, who art in heaven -- if indeed there is a heaven and if there is a god that takes a woman's form." It asked "that you deliver us from the evil of forced religious worship" and implored that "the people of the state of Utah will some day learn the wisdom of the separation of church and state."
Snyder sued after town officials refused to let him read the prayer. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later sided with the city, saying Snyder's prayer was really a "political harangue" that fell outside this nation's "long-accepted genre of legislative prayer."
In its ruling, the appeals court gave its blessing to certain types of legislative prayer, especially those that involve "nonsectarian requests for wisdom and solemnity, as well as calls for divine blessing on the work of the legislative body." (Snyder v. Murray City)
In other high court news:
\xb7The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from a Quaker who says paying taxes to support the military infringes on her freedom of religion. Priscilla M. Lippincott Adams of Philadelphia has refused to pay taxes, since some of the money goes to the military budget. She said she would pay if the money were directed to non-military uses.
In her defense, Adams cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which still applies to the federal government. In March the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the RFRA is still binding on the federal government but rejected Adams' argument that her religious rights were violated.
\xb7The high court has agreed to hear a dispute from Wisconsin centering on mandatory student activity fees. Conservative students have sued the University of Wisconsin, arguing that they object to their money being given to liberal campus organizations. Although student activity fees are not the same as a tax, Americans United is watching the case, because a broad ruling could have implications for the voucher issue. (Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth)
AU Opposes Colorado 'Sweetheart' Land Deal For Catholic Church
Americans United has protested a Colorado city's decision to sell valuable land to a Roman Catholic church at a bargain rate.
The Board of Directors of the Pueblo West Metropolitan District voted 3-2 last month to sell an eight-acre parcel of land to St. Paul the Apostle Church for far below market value. The church, which has been trying to buy the land since 1995, wants to expand its building.
Under the deal, the church will get the land for what it was valued at in 1995 -- $11,600, even though its value has since increased dramatically to more than $200,000.
In a March 29 letter to the board, AU Litigation Counsel Ayesha N. Khan urged members to reconsider the sale. "We believe that the sale would constitute a gross violation of constitutional principles and we request that you reconsider your decision so as to avoid legal action," Khan wrote.
Khan asserted that, "The sale would also constitute an unconstitutional subsidy of the church's operations."
City attorneys said they are studying the deal.
Federal Appeals Court Ends Cleveland School Board Prayer Policy
A federal appeals court has ruled that the Cleveland Board of Education must stop opening its sessions with overtly Christian prayers.
In a 2-1 ruling handed down March 18, the court said the board's practice runs afoul of the separation of church and state. The case was filed in 1992 by a former student, Sarah Coles, who said she was "shocked and surprised" by the openly sectarian prayers she heard when she attended a board meeting to receive an academic award. Teacher Gene Tracy also joined the lawsuit, which was handled by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
The court noted that from 1992 to 1995 the board routinely invited Christian ministers to lead prayers before meetings. In January of 1996, the Rev. Stephen Sullivan was elected board president and decided to lead prayers himself.
A federal judge had upheld the board's prayer policy, but the appeals court reversed that ruling. In doing so, the court rejected the board's argument that the prayers were merely intended to "solemnize" its meetings.
Wrote Judge Ronald Lee Gilman, "[T]he content of the prayers delivered at the school board meetings clearly went beyond what was necessary to solemnize or bring a more businesslike decorum to such meetings. The prayers frequently called for divine assistance or affirmation, sometimes by using veiled references to the Bible. In addition, many prayers mentioned Jesus by name. The board could have used the inspirational words of Abraham Lincoln or, as in fact one speaker did, the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to achieve the same ends. Instead, the board relied upon the intrinsically religious practice of prayer to achieve its stated secular end."