Yesterday wasn't a great day for church-state separation. President George W. Bush convened a White House summit on ways to finance faith-based schools, and Jeb Bush's allies took a major step towards erasing religious liberty protections from the Florida Constitution.
Exactly why financing religious schools is in the purview of the government and not religious institutions isn't clear to me, but I'm not surprised the two have taken on the project.
The president and his brother are die-hard supporters of voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools. "My whole theory of life," President Bush said yesterday, "was we ought to be asking about results, not necessarily process." (How very Machiavellian of him.) He's responsible for Washington, D.C.'s voucher scheme and asked Congress to approve $300 million for private school vouchers in his 2008 State of the Union address.
Interestingly, both President Bush's speech and First Lady Laura Bush's remarks in January highlighted how private organizations (both religious and secular) are helping save faith-based schools. No matter, the Bushes are determined to send kids to religious schools on the taxpayer's dime.
In his Summit address, Bush urged state lawmakers to repeal their constitutions' no-aid provisions (sometimes – often inaccurately and pejoratively – called "Blaine Amendments").
"If [state lawmakers are] concerned about quality education for children, and if they're concerned about these schools closing," Bush said through thunderous applause, "they ought to remove the Blaine Amendments."
Funny, that's exactly what Jeb is trying to do in Florida. The State Supreme Court rebuffed his attempts to defy the state constitution and fund religious schools as governor, so his allies on the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission are trying to remove that pesky obstacle.
A rabbi and two reverends recently wrote the Commission on behalf of themselves and the Florida members of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"Each of us are members of differing faiths—one a Baptist minister, one a Presbyterian – USA minister, and one a Rabbi—but all of us agree that the current [no-aid provision] of the Florida Constitution is critical to preserving religious liberty," they wrote.
"This most basic liberty is built on a foundation of the freedom to exercise one's religion and the freedom from government funding of and interference with religion. Without one part of the foundation, religious freedom will falter."
Impassioned pleas notwithstanding, the Commission voted to put two very dangerous constitutional amendments on the November ballot.
Handing religious liberty over to the democratic process makes me very nervous. Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in 1943 that the "the very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities....fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."
An American citizen's right not to fund religious indoctrination is a fundamental right. James Madison wrote in 1785 that "it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties....Who does not see...that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?"
The following year, Thomas Jefferson wrote that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical."
Florida voters, and every voter in states with no-aid provisions, should be concerned about upholding those ideals. Improving education is a noble and necessary goal, but it can't come at religious liberty's expense.