Don't Subsidize Religion!: Why Congress Should Reject The Bush School Voucher Scheme

School vouchers have again made it onto the national stage. In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President George W. Bush reintroduced a plan to create a federal voucher program that subsidizes tuition at religious and other private schools. He mentioned the plan in passing while urging Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) this year.

Republicans leaped to their feet at the mention of "school choice" for parents across the country, while Democrats applauded politely, clearly bristling at the thought of diverting desperately needed funds away from public schools.

Supporters of church-state separation have reason to bristle, too. Vouchers are not just a way to get kids out of failing schools, as advocates claim; they effectively force taxpayers to finance religious indoctrination and discrimination.

Bush's national voucher scheme was excised from NCLB in order for it to win bipartisan support in 2001, but a federally funded voucher program in Washington, D.C. was approved in 2004 with strong administration support. Washington's voucher scheme is a shining example of how easy it is for taxpayer dollars to subsidize religious training and discrimination.

For example, approximately 1,800 D.C. students currently receive up to $7,500 to attend the private or charter school of their choice. Two participating schools are the Blessed Sacrament School and the Islamic Saudi Academy. A quick glance at these schools' Web sites shows how much their curricula are infused with religion.

Blessed Sacrament School says it doesn't discriminate based on religion in its admissions process, but non-Catholic applicants will only be considered if seats would otherwise sit empty. Prospective students are also required to submit a baptismal certificate with their application. Translation: Non-Christian students are going to be uncomfortable, if they're admitted at all.

Once admitted, religion guides the students' education. According to the school's philosophy, "Our primary goal is to direct the child toward a mature Christian life.... The Eucharistic celebrations, communicable prayer, and participation in sacramental liturgical celebration are all ways in which the children are guided toward a mature relationship with their Savior, Jesus Christ."

At the Islamic Saudi Academy, students begin Islamic studies in pre-kindergarten. By third grade, they are expected to memorize entire chapters of the Holy Quran. The only history taught to fourth graders is on the "Religious and social conditions of Saudi Arabia before Islam" and on the life and mission of the Prophet Muhammad. Eleventh-grade Islamic Studies focuses on Sharia (Divine Law) and in twelfth grade students are taught the importance of implementing that law. All students are expected to participate in daily Islamic prayers.

When taxpayers pick up the tuition bill for students at religious schools, there is absolutely no way to avoid funding religious education, practices and discrimination. Yet, the Bush administration apparently sees no problem with this.

According to the Washington Post, students would be eligible to receive up to $4,000 under the proposed Bush voucher plan. (That's more than enough to cover The Saudi Academy's $2,500 annual tuition.) Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings vowed to push the entire NCLB reauthorization package through Congress, even though the voucher scheme faces stiff resistance from pro-public education lawmakers.

Vouchers for religious schools fly in the face of religious liberty. Americans have long been free to support, or not support, the religion of their choice. Forcing taxpayers to foot the tuition bill for students in religious schools is a huge step towards established religion in this country, for there is no better way for a government to advance religion than to pay for it.