Americans United has been critical of Louisiana lately, chiding legislators for promoting creationism and official school prayer, so when something good happens in the Pelican State, we should point it out.
Yesterday, something very good happened: The state’s supreme court struck down the funding mechanism for Gov. Bobby Jindal’s misguided private school voucher plan.
The voucher scheme was approved in 2008, and just under 5,000 students currently take part, although plans were in the works to expand it to 8,000 this September.
The 6-1 decision didn’t rest on church-state issues. Louisiana used to have strong language in its state constitution barring the diversion of tax funds to religious institutions, but that provision was removed in 1974 after an aggressive push led by sectarian lobbies.
Instead, voucher opponents at the Louisiana Federation of Teachers focused on the manner in which Jindal chose to funnel public support to private schools. The money was taken from the “minimum foundation program,” which, under the Louisiana Constitution, is restricted to public schools. The teachers’ group argued that diverting these dollars to religious and other private schools was clearly illegal.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Weimer agreed. In the Louisiana Federation of Teachers v. State of Louisiana decision, he held that “the constitution prohibits those funds from being expended on the tuition costs of nonpublic schools and nonpublic entities.”
Even though the case didn’t turn on the question of separation of church and state, Americans United believed it was important to remind the justices that taxpayer funding of religious institutions is always problematic. AU’s Legal Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief pointing out that many of the religious schools taking part in the program are saturated with theology – and often controversial views.
The brief cited several examples, including schools that use textbooks that rebuke evolution and teach that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Some suggest that dinosaurs may still be living today and even that Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster exists. Other texts assert that environmentalists are seeking to destroy the economy, that God used the mistreatment of Native Americans to convert them to Christianity and that many people in Africa are illiterate because they are not Christians.
While people have the right to send their children to schools that teach such things, AU argues that it’s counterproductive to fund them with money siphoned from an already strapped public school system.
This battle is far from over. Jindal may have been slapped by the state’s high court, but he’s not giving up. He has vowed to find another way to fund the voucher program.
Jindal can be stopped if enough Louisiana residents stand up and make it clear that they don’t want vouchers in their state. The supreme court’s ruling presents Louisianans with a rare opportunity to correct a mistake the legislature made four years ago.
Let’s hope they take it.