February 2011 Church & State | Editorial

The U.S. Congress and several states are considering voucher programs that pay for tuition at religious and other private schools. This is a deeply troubling trend that threatens religious liberty.

People oppose vouchers for lots of reasons. For Americans United, it’s a core issue: We oppose vouchers because they tax all Americans to pay for religion.

Most religious schools are saturated with the theological views of the churches that sponsor them. This isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that some politicians expect all Americans to pay to propagate these views. That’s a clear violation of religious liberty.

A religious group has every right to open a school, or any other sectarian enterprise, but its members must pay for it.

Passing the collection plate to others violates core rights. Why should a biologist have to pay taxes to support fundamentalist academies that deny modern science? Is it right to require an advocate of abortion rights to subsidize a Catholic school that teaches that abortion, for any reason, is a sin? Is it acceptable to compel gays and lesbians to support ultra-conservative religious schools that condemn same-sex relationships?

Voucher advocates argue that taxpayers are often forced to pay for things they personally dislike. They overlook a salient fact: The First Amendment expressly protects us from being forced to subsidize religion.

Religion is treated this way in the First Amendment because our Founders had seen the corrosive effects of government-mandated support for churches in Europe and in the American colonies. Church taxes were not an abstraction for men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They lived under such schemes – until they personally drafted legislation abolishing them.

People in the colonies chafed at being forced to support someone else’s religion. Opposition to church taxes fueled the drive for a First Amendment that separated church and state.

We must invoke that spirit again today. We must resist all efforts to re-impose a religion tax – no matter what guise it takes or what it is called.

Advocates of public education often point out that studies show that vouchers do not boost student performance. They also note that our public schools, which serve 90 percent of American schoolchildren, are being subjected to budget cuts in many states. In light of this, they assert, it is unconscionable to consider diverting scarce resources to private religious schools that aren’t even accountable to the public.

These are good points. They should be brought to the attention of our lawmakers and the public.

But we must also remember the basics: Vouchers are a mechanism for taking money from your pocket and turning it over to religious groups that in turn use it to spread their faith.

This is government-compelled support for religion. It is what Jefferson and Madison fought so hard against. It is fundamentally wrong.

For the sake of freedom of conscience, vouchers must be vigorously opposed.