The guarantee of religious liberty and church-state separation found in the U.S. Constitution is sacrosanct. Over the years, attempts in Congress to revise the First Amendment to allow official school prayer and other theocratic schemes have garnered a deserving fate: ignominious defeat.
State constitutions contain protections of religious freedom as well, and many include especially high and strong walls of separation between church and state. These provisions are an important second line of defense in the battle to preserve freedom of conscience. They should also be zealously defended.
Thirty-eight state constitutions contain language expressly barring the diversion of taxpayer money to sectarian institutions. Increasingly, they are coming under attack by the forces that promote vouchers, “faith-based” initiatives and other types of public aid to religion.
In Florida, residents will vote this November on a proposal to erase the strong church-state separation language from their constitution. Efforts are under way to remove or water down church-state language in the constitutions of Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wyoming, and Americans United activists are fighting back.
Ironically, conservatives – who often claim to revere tradition and precedent – are leading these drives. They want to bring taxpayer support for religious education through vouchers to these states and know that these constitutional provisions stand in their way.
The battle is getting ugly. Voucher proponents assert that these state provisions are anti-Catholic. In fact, the language found in many state constitutions bars tax support for the religious schools and projects sponsored by all religions. Voucher boosters have yet to explain how a constitutional provision that treats every religion exactly the same manages to discriminate against just one.
Here’s what’s really going on: The hierarchy of the Catholic Church operates an extensive private school system. For various reasons, that school system isn’t as popular as it once was, and many parochial schools have had to close. Rather than adjust to this new reality, church leaders are demanding a taxpayer-financed bailout – even as they boast about how their schools are instruments of evangelism!
Far from being “anti-Catholic,” state constitutional provisions protect Americans from being forced to prop up any religious school system, be it Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Islamic. These provisions ensure that the bill for sectarian schools is handed to the members of the respective faith communities, not the taxpayers.
With the Supreme Court increasingly unreliable on questions of taxpayer aid to religion, state constitutional provisions are a vital back-up defense. These provisions have for years protected taxpayers. It’s time for the taxpayers to return the favor.