The U.S. Supreme Court isn't as diligent as it used to be on protecting taxpayers from being compelled to support religious schools and other ministries. In 2002, the high court upheld Ohio's school voucher plan, even though most of the money goes to sectarian schools.
That's why state constitutions are so important. They have become the new front-line defense in the battle to prevent people from being forced to support sectarian education.
In some states, these provisions are doing exactly what were intended to do. Recently, the Arizona Court of Appeals struck down that state's voucher plan, holding that it runs afoul of a provision in the Arizona Constitution barring the diversion of tax aid to religious institutions.
Thirty-seven other states have provisions barring tax assistance to religious schools and other sectarian institutions. Opponents of these provisions, including Religious Right organizations, libertarian-oriented economic groups, anti-public school activists and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, insist that these provisions are relics of anti-Catholic bigotry from the late 19th century.
This is a gross oversimplification. Many of the provisions predate the late 19th century and appear in states that never had large Catholic populations.
The fact that this language appears in so many state constitutions should tell us something. These words reflect a principle that has been part of our country since its founding: You are free to practice the religion of your choice, but you must pay for it yourself.
We tend to forget that there was a time in colonial America when taxation to support churches was common – and how hated that taxation was. (For a reminder, check out James Madison's brilliant "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.")
Some people burn to bring back religion taxes, this time in the form of vouchers and other forms of aid to religious schools. If they pull this off, you will be forced to support an unaccountable network of private schools that serve religious interests, discriminate on religious grounds in hiring and admissions and espouse dogma and political views that you may find offensive.
Thus, the taxes paid by a biologist could end up in the hands of a fundamentalist academy that teaches creationism. A pro-choice activist would be forced to support Catholic schools that preach anti-choice views. A gay person would be expected to subsidize religious schools that advocate hating gays.
In Florida, former governor Jeb Bush manipulated an obscure state tax commission and has arranged for two ballot initiatives to appear in November. One would eviscerate the Florida Constitution's language barring tax aid to religion, and the other would mandate vouchers. (Bush is angry because the Florida Supreme Court struck down his voucher plan in 2006.)
Interestingly, the word "voucher" never appears in either proposal. The language used is benign sounding, even positive. Ballot Question Number 7 is headlined, "Religious freedom," and Number 9 reads, "Requiring 65 percent of school funding for classroom instruction; state's duty for children's education."
The St. Petersburg Times has not been fooled.
The newspaper editorialized yesterday, "If the actual purpose eluded you, then the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission would be pleased. The intent behind the baldly political game commissioners played in putting two school voucher issues on the ballot was obvious: Get voters to approve vouchers without knowing they did."
Jeb Bush's brother, President George W. Bush, has endorsed the plan and called for it to be exported to other states. If the Bush Brothers succeed in pulling the wool over the eyes of Sunshine State voters, you can bet they'll mobilize their cronies to move on to other states.
The task, then, is clear: make sure they don't succeed in Florida.