In a campaign aimed at supporting public funds for public schools, Americans United for Separation of Church and State today began reaching out to the public, including in North Carolina, to explain why expanding taxpayer-funded vouchers for private, religious schools is bad for our children’s education. The campaign centerpiece, a video called “Free to Be Me” featuring teenagers, emphasizes the diverse, multicultural nature of public schools – and the discrimination often practiced by voucher-funded private religious schools.
The campaign is funded by the North Carolina-based Stiefel Freethought Foundation. Todd Stiefel is a long-term local church-state activist and former AU National Advisory Council member. The chair of the Americans United board of directors, the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, is a psychologist and minister in Asheville, N.C.
HB 32, a bill filed this legislative session in North Carolina, would expand funding and student eligibility for voucher programs. And although the legislature passed a massive expansion of these programs just last year, HB 32 would transfer another $160 million away from public schools to private, mostly religious schools over the next nine years.
“North Carolina has become an important battleground for church-state separation,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “At a time when public schools are facing unprecedented challenges to serve students in the midst of a pandemic, it is unjust and unfair to divert much-needed funding to private schools.”
Public schools – which educate 90% of America’s students – are open to all students regardless of disability, religion, race, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other factor. But public funds are being redirected to private schools in North Carolina under the guise of “Opportunity Scholarships.” Those schools often promote religiously based interpretations of science, civics and history, and discriminate against students who are LGBTQ, have a disability or don’t observe the school’s preferred religious practices.
Private religious schools also are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring decisions. Under the “ministerial exception,” broadened last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court, religious institutions are freed from obeying civil rights and anti-discrimination laws when they hire and employ certain employees, impacting teachers and staff at private religious schools.
“We are so grateful to Todd Stiefel for helping us share this message about private school vouchers in North Carolina and other states,” Laser said. “At the end of the day, church-state separation is about equality: ensuring that all people, whether they practice a specific religion or not, are treated the same, regardless of their beliefs. North Carolinians must let their legislators know that they want their taxes to fund the one educational system that is free and open to every child – the public schools.”
Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Learn more at www.au.org.