People went to the polls yesterday to vote on more than just who would be the next president of the United States. Voters in two states and one city voted on ballot initiatives that would have impacted religious freedom.
Freedom of religion and belief guarantees that we can freely choose our beliefs because the government cannot compel us to follow or fund a specific faith or any faith. Each of the ballot initiatives proposed to undermine this fundamental American principle and would allow the government to aid religion. The good news is: in all three referendums, religious freedom won.
Oklahomans overwhelmingly rejected SQ 790, an amendment that would have stripped the provision in the state constitution that prevents public money or property from being used to support religion and religious institutions. The provision, which has been a part of the Oklahoma Constitution since the state’s founding, protects the integrity of churches and the government, by keeping them separate. It also protects taxpayers who should not be forced to fund religious institutions.
Legislators put SQ 790 on the ballot after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a government-sponsored Ten Commandments monument on the capitol grounds violated the Oklahoma Constitution. The goal was to repeal that constitutional provision and return the Ten Commandments to the same spot, even though the monument likely would still violate the U.S. Constitution and lead to more costly legal battles.
Proponents of the SQ 790, however, tried to persuade people to vote yes with misleading (and offensive) claims that the constitutional provision hurt students with disabilities (false) and would prevent religious groups from partnering with the state to help the poor and sick (also false). It was disheartening to see groups willing to misinform voters in order to strip away their religious liberty protections. In the end, the voters saw through the false claims and rejected the measure 57 percent to 43 percent.
Not all the news was bad last night -- we went three for three on ballot referenda!
Missouri voters also rightly rejected Amendment 3, the Early Childhood Health and Education Amendment, by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent. The referendum asked whether voters wanted to increase the state cigarette tax to pay for early childhood education programs. Hidden in the amendment, however, was language that would have exempted the money raised by the tax from the provision in the Missouri Constitution that prohibits public funds from aiding religious institutions. In short, that means that the cigarette tax could have funded religious schools and other religious organizations. But public dollars, of course, should not fund religious institutions and religious education. The amendment was also opposed for various other reasons by health, education, civil rights, and other groups—both progressive and conservative.
Fortunately, the voters understood the consequences of Amendment 3 and voted to keep the state’s religious freedom safeguards in place.
Atlantic City, N.J.: Win!
The people of Atlantic City were asked, in a non-binding referendum, whether the city should fund a city-wide private school voucher program and create tax credits for homeschool students. 54 percent of the voters cast a “no” ballot.
Supporters of the ballot initiative falsely claimed that it would help the city, which is facing a dire budget crisis, cut costs. Of course, we know that one of the many problems with private school vouchers is that they end up costing cities more money rather than saving money. And a tax credit for homeschooling would clearly drain taxpayer dollars away from the city.
That is why the Press of Atlantic City editorial board called the voucher proposal “nonsense” and the homeschool tax credit “absurd for a bankrupt city.” And the Atlantic City Education Association has criticized the council for even “contemplat[ing] stripping even more funds from Atlantic City’s public school students.”
In the end, the voters saw through the false and misleading promises of vouchers and tax credits, and they voted in favor of public schools and against having their tax dollars fund private religious schools.
As we all try to wrap our heads around the other results of yesterday’s election, we can all know that, at least when it comes to ballot initiatives, the people voted to keep church and state separate.