By Noah Fitzgerel
Aug. 1 will be a day that marks Louisiana’s continued effort to bore a hole though the wall of separation between church and state. That Wednesday is when the state’s new school voucher program kicks in and private schools that teach religion become eligible for taxpayer support.
Zack Kopplin, a Louisiana native and student at Rice University who has fought attempts to lower the church-state wall, published an article discussing research he has conducted on the implications for science education.
Wrote Kopplin, “My review of the Governor's voucher program identifies at least 20 schools who use a creationist curriculum or blatantly promote creationism on their websites. These 20 schools have been awarded 1,365 voucher slots and can receive as much as $11,602,500 in taxpayer money annually.”
I shuddered as I scanned the article. It’s troubling that a state government is giving almost $12 million to sectarian institutions to teach religion in science class (as well as other courses) instead of designating that money to its own public school system.
I couldn’t believe the efficiency with which a Louisiana parent can search the Louisiana Department of Education’s website to shop for a private school catering to religious beliefs with the promise of government aid. Gov. Bobby Jindal is obviously serious about supporting the agenda of the Religious Right and disparaging the church-state separation provisions of the First Amendment.
In his article, Kopplin focused on the science curricula of the sectarian schools that will receive aid from the state’s coffers. These schools’ education philosophies were largely similar to that of the Eternity Christian Academy, which according to Kopplin, considers evolution “extremely damaging to children individually and to society as a whole [because it] denies the principle of the individual's accountability to God.”
Kopplin’s research further revealed that Louisiana’s voucher program even benefits schools such as the Upperroom Bible Church Academy that publicly boasts that "we endeavor to win all unsaved students to Jesus Christ.” (The two schools I mentioned can receive up to $1,147,000 and $1,419,000, respectively, from the state’s taxpayers.)
It isn’t just fundamentalist Protestant schools that will get funding through the voucher scheme, of course. Catholic schools and those affiliated with other traditions will get public subsidies as well. There is not a doubt that Louisiana’s voucher program can only be justified under a gross misinterpretation of the separation of church and state.
Kopplin, unfortunately, has gotten used to opposing Jindal’s policies regarding religion and government. He began his battle against the degradation of the church-state wall in Louisiana when the governor signed into law the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) in 2008. That measure gave pedagogical license to undermine evolution in the school science curricula.
We, here at Americans United, vociferously opposed the LSEA and are appalled that Jindal continues to disregard constitutional principle with the state giving incentives to parents to turn to sectarian institutions for their children’s education.
Families are certainly free to patronize religious schools if they choose. The Constitution guarantees American citizens that right. Families, however, are not entitled to governmentally subsidized religious education.
The argument over the appropriate role of government and the degree to which it can involve itself with religious education is certainly not new to Louisiana. It was the subject of Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), a case in which the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional for Louisiana to demand of its public school system that it teach “creation science” to its students.
Laws such as the LSEA and the new school voucher program were written to circumvent court rulings that have found the teaching of religion in public schools unconstitutional.
Political and legislative forces pushing creationism sometimes say they are promoting “academic freedom.”
As a public high school student myself, I do not see the “freedom” nor the “academic” qualities that are ostensibly inherent in these laws. Instead, I see an agenda to inhibit my ability to maintain my personal religious convictions and to allow public officials to infiltrate my education with a religious doctrine of their own.
Noah Fitzgerel is a summer intern at Americans United. He is a rising senior at Annandale High School, Annandale, Va.