U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave a speech last week during which she attacked the “no-aid-to religion” amendments that exist in nearly 40 state constitutions.
DeVos implied that these amendments are examples of 19th century anti-Catholicism, and she asserted that their main purpose was to prevent tax support for going to private Catholic schools.
As usual, DeVos has no idea what she’s talking about.
“Like with many things, Betsy Devos has her facts wrong,” Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United, told Education Week’s blog. (DeVos’ lack of knowledge of an array of education-related issues, from private school vouchers to the growing trend of using religion to discriminate, was on full display again Tuesday when she testified before a Congressional education committee.)
Indeed, DeVos is guilty of a disturbing ignorance of history. The idea that no one should be taxed to pay for the religion of another has a long lineage in the United States – in fact, the concept predates our existence as a nation. Early settlers to these shores came out of a European experience where church and state were often merged and church taxes were common. Some of our early colonies adopted that model, and it was a problem right from the start.
Many people chafed at the idea of being compelled to pay these taxes. It’s fair to say that opposition to church taxes is one of the main reasons we have separation of church and state. (Public schools as we know them today didn’t exist during the colonial period. Battles over religion in schools would come much later.)
Key founders knew that mandatory financial support for religion was a violation of the fundamental right of conscience. A turning point occurred in 1784, when Patrick Henry proposed a “general assessment” bill that would have taxed Virginians to pay for “teachers of the Christian religion.”
In response, James Madison wrote one of the great classics of religious freedom – the “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” It’s a list of 15 reasons why no one should be forced to pay a church tax – and its arguments still resonate today.
Madison’s third point contains a particularly succinct passage: “Who does not see … that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
In other words, a church tax just opens the door. Once the government can force you to support a religion against your will financially, it can compel religious conformity in other cases.
But Madison did more than just pen a powerful broadside. After he defeated Henry’s proposal, Madison pushed through the legislature Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
That law, which to this day remains part of the Virginia Constitution, puts it bluntly: “[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever….”
During the post-Civil War period, many new states in the West included “no-aid” amendments in their constitutions. Some of these were championed by U.S. Sen. James G. Blaine, a Maine Republican who aspired to the presidency. DeVos and her supporters who want to divert taxpayer money to private religious schools have painted a caricature of Blaine as an outrageous anti-Catholic bigot.
As I noted in this 2002 Church & State story, the truth is more nuanced – but this is an administration that doesn’t do nuance; it just spews “alternative facts.” The real facts tell us that the states that adopted no-aid amendments in the 19th century were hardly doing something radical. They were simply honoring the great American tradition of ensuring voluntary support for religion.
DeVos’ remarks don’t just spread misinformation; they mock and degrade a system that has worked so well for us. Far from suppressing religion, our nation’s practice of no forced support for houses of worship had led to a great flowering of faith; it has strengthened religion, not suppressed it.
The evidence is seen in the thousands of religious groups that operate in this free nation, all happily supported by the men and women who believe in their missions.
DeVos and her allies want to exchange that proven system of success for one our founders rejected more than 230 years ago because it violates the right of conscience and doesn’t work. They want to impose a modern-day version of a church tax on the American people.
Far from buttressing religious freedom, their reckless scheme will only serve to undermine one of our nation’s great traditions – the principle that religion does best when it relies on voluntary support.