The 11th-hour budget deal that averted a shutdown of the federal government has been the talk of the nation. Pundits are going over the agreement with a microscope, listing the winners and losers.
We already know one loser: religious liberty.
As part of the deal, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) got his way and breathed new life into a controversial school voucher plan in Washington, D.C. Boehner has pushed the voucher idea relentlessly, and it apparently became a bargaining chip during negotiations. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to Boehner’s demands.
This is really is quite remarkable. This budget deal, as many critics have pointed out, slashes federal spending in lots of programs. Millions of Americans may take hits. Yet somehow, amidst all of the slicing and dicing, Congress managed to come up with millions in taxpayer dollars to revive a scheme that subsidizes religious and other private schools in D.C.
They did this, even though (as AU has pointed out repeatedly) the voucher plan undercuts civil rights and civil liberties. It directs federal funds to Catholic, Protestant and Islamic schools that are free to indoctrinate children in the tenets of their sponsoring faiths and discriminate in hiring on grounds of religion and sexual orientation.
If you are a federal taxpayer, that means you will be putting your hard-earned money in the collection plates of religious denominations whether you like or not. It violates the fundamental American principle that religion must be supported by voluntary donations, not coerced support from the taxpayers.
Ironically, the voucher program also fails to improve academic performance. The Bush-era scheme began as a five-year pilot program in 2003. Several studies, including ones sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, have shown that vouchers failed to boost the academic performance of the targeted population. Because of these findings, the program was set to be phased out, starting in 2008, where only the students currently receiving a voucher at that time could remain in the program.
Incredibly, the budget deal doles out a generous chunk of change to sectarian schools while slashing aid to public schools and other public services in D.C. While specific details remain unclear, it looks like under the deal, as much as $100 million may be diverted to religious and other private schools over five years.
At the same time, as much as $80 million may be cut from D.C. schools, courts and other institutions. (The deal includes a provision barring the city from using its own money to pay for abortions for poor women – another blatant sop to the Catholic hierarchy and the Religious Right.)
D.C. lawmakers are quite understandably furious.
"While I am relieved that Congress reached an agreement so that our employees can work and city services can continue, I am also angry and extremely disappointed that the District of Columbia, once again, suffered collateral damage amidst partisan bickering,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray said. “The District of Columbia’s right to govern itself has, once again, been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. This is ludicrous. Hypocrisy is alive and well.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting congressional delegate, blasted the deal on a local television station.
“This is the functional equivalent of bombing innocent civilians,” she said. “It’s time the District of Columbia told Congress to go straight to hell.”
Gray and Norton have a right to be angry – and so does every American who cares about the future of public education and church-state separation.
P.S. There will be a protest about this matter tonight at 5. If you live in the D.C. area, consider attending. Details here.