Ohio’s public schools are now eligible for a publicly funded mentorship program – but only if they partner with houses of worship and religious charities. Gov. John Kasich (R) recently announced the requirement as a surprise addition to HB 483, which allocated $10 million for the “Community Connectors” program and originally described faith-based partnerships as an option, rather than a mandate, for schools.In order to participate in the program, schools must name a church or religious charity as a partner in addition to a business or secular non-profit group. And Kasich’s administration isn’t backing down from the measure. Quite the opposite: Officials have characterized it as a priority policy for the governor.The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that at a recent gathering of school officials, Ohio Department of Education official Buddy Harris asserted, “The faith-based organization is clearly at the heart of the vision of the governor.”
Harris added that the administration does “not foresee any proseletyzing happening,” but it’s unclear if there are measures in place to prevent it. Statements by the governor’s representatives, and the governor himself, lend credence to concerns that the prevention of proselytization isn’t exactly an administration priority.“The governor believes faith-based organizations play an important role in the lives of young people,” said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols. And in a video message to schools, the governor expanded on that belief. “The Good Lord has a purpose for each and every one of them (students) and you're helping them to find it,” he said.As a private citizen, Kasich’s entitled to that perspective. But his decision to use his office to force public schools, which are by law secular entities, to partner with houses of worship and religious charities raises serious legal questions. It’s also a surprise to the state legislators who voted to adopt the program.
According to the Plain Dealer, the bill’s original language categorized faith-based organizations with businesses and civic groups as potential mentorship partners. The paper also noted that Kasich, and the Department of Education, also didn’t emphasize the possibility of religious mentorships as they stumped for the bill. Kasich, while describing the program in his State of the State address this year, instead chose to focus on secular mentorship models with organizations like the United Way.That means legislators never voted to approve Kasich’s faith-based requirement for public schools.
Instead, the troublesome addition got tacked onto the bill after it passed both chambers of the state legislature. And there’s evidence that the advisory board the governor created to design and oversee the program is responsible for the measure. Two conservative Christian pastors serve on that board, and administration officials admitted that the requirement was added after meetings with board members.The late addition also means that the Kasich administration effectively circumvented the democratic process in order to force public schools to participate in his sectarian agenda.It doesn’t really matter why Kasich waited to approve the faith-based requirement. Whether he did so because he believed legislators wouldn’t vote as desired or because of a last-minute change of heart, the result is the same: A flagrant violation of the First Amendment.
As governor, Kasich’s first responsibility is to uphold the Constitution, not his personal dogma. And if he really wants to improve the lives of Ohio’s students, he can start by respecting their right to an educational environment free of religious coercion.