Public Funds For Fred Phelps?: Voucher Dollars Could Go To Religious Schools That Teach Hate

When it comes to school vouchers, Indiana State Sen. Brent Steele (R-Bedford) seems to get it.

The Republican lawmaker doesn’t want to support an Indiana bill that would use public funds to send students to religious and other private schools. Steele is the first Republican legislator in the state to voice opposition to the proposal.

In a letter to every lawmaker sent out this week, Steele writes that he wouldn’t want his taxes to pay for students to attend a school run by the Westboro Baptist Church. Members of the notorious Topeka, Kan.-based church demonstrate at the funerals of soldiers, holding up signs with hateful anti-gay messages. The church’s protests are constitutionally protected free speech, according to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“We just saw this week the Westboro Baptist Church is recognized as a religious entity that is protected,” observed Steele. “How would you like your tax dollars going toward educating their children being privately schooled inside their church?  I don’t want my tax dollars used to raise a child who is going to want to kill my grandchildren because they are of a different religious belief.

"Once you start letting tax dollars go out to religious schools," Steele continued, "you can't make a determination which is the best religion or what is a proper religion."

That’s exactly right.  Taxpayer funds should never go to support religious schools, period. Not only does it create a slippery slope, it also raises a wide array of serious constitutional concerns.

The religious school subsidy is a pet project of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who in December unveiled an education plan that included a large voucher component. Daniels said he wanted to make tuition aid available to “low and moderate” income residents statewide, offering up to $5,500 in stipends.

The plan would allow private schools to decide which students to accept and would have no cap on the number of pupils taking part. If the measure passes, it will be one of the most sweeping voucher programs in the country.

Daniel’s pitch hasn’t been well-received by Democrats in the Indiana House. They have staged a walkout over the voucher measure and other legislation impacting the middle class. They are camping out in Illinois until these bills are dropped. Republicans hold a 60-40 majority in the House, but a two-thirds quorum is needed to vote on legislation.

Steele’s letter is the latest twist in the Indiana drama. We hope he can get through to his fellow lawmakers and finally put an end to the misguided voucher plan.

As Americans United has said before: Vouchers are bad news. Voucher subsidies for religious schools undermine church-state separation, undercut civil rights, hurt the public schools, are opposed by voters and have not improved student performance.

Still, legislators in more than 30 states have introduced voucher bills this session. And the battle continues to brew in Congress, where House Speaker John Boehner and U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman are pushing a measure to reauthorize a D.C. voucher scheme.

Now is the time for AU activists to come together to defeat these voucher measures across the country. Contact your state and federal lawmakers today and tell them you don’t want your tax dollars to pay for religious education.