State constitutional provisions that bar taxpayer funding of religion are under fire in several states, and Americans United is taking the lead to protect them.
In Oklahoma, State Rep. Jason Nelson, an Oklahoma City Republican, has proposed a ballot initiative that would ask voters to remove Article 2, Section 5, of the state constitution. Nelson is targeting the provision that separates religion and government.
Oklahoma, like a lot of states, has very specific church-state safeguards. The language in question states, “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”
Nelson and his allies want to remove this provision to clear the way for voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools. The House Rules Committee has already passed House Joint Resolution 1081 by an 11-1 vote, and now it faces a vote in the full House.
Americans United is speaking out and has sent a letter to state officials, urging them to oppose the change.
Wrote AU State Legislative Counsel Amanda Rolat, “For true religious freedom to exist in Oklahoma, the government must refrain from supporting religious instruction and worship. HJR 1081, however, would turn this protection on its head. Passage of this amendment would put the state in the business of religion.”
In Missouri, Americans United is mobilizing activists to oppose SJR 47, a measure that would strip provisions from the Missouri Constitution that ban public funding of religious schools.
The sponsor of the effort, Sen. Scott Rupp (R-Wentzville), says the language in Article IX of the Missouri Constitution must be removed to create a voucher plan in the state. Rupp’s proposal is backed by the Missouri Catholic Conference.
A state Senate committee held a hearing on the matter in February but took no action.
Americans United has urged legislators to leave the constitution intact.
“Missourians would be forced to send their tax dollars to houses of worship and religious schools that hold tenets that sharply conflict with their most sincerely held religious beliefs,” Rolat wrote to members of the House Rules Committee. “For those who do not share a particular religious tradition, such taxpayer-supported religious content is an affront. True religious freedom means that religion is allowed to grow, flourish and thrive in a realm completely separate from government and tax funds.”
The Alaska effort focuses on Article VII, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution. The provision bars tax aid to religious schools and is under fire by voucher proponents.
Lloyd Eggan, president of the Alaska Chapter of Americans United, weighed in with a letter to State Rep. Bill Stoltze (R-Chugiak), co-chair of the House Finance Committee, asking him to oppose the change.
“The citizens of Alaska set out certain protections in the state constitution to protect religious freedom,” Eggan wrote. “There is no reason to strip away those protections. Such freedoms are easy to take away, but far more difficult to reinstate after they are gone.”
Measures that would remove or water down church-state protections in state constitutions are also pending in Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi and Wyoming.