Editor’s Note: The constitutional principle of religious freedom has been undermined like never before under the Trump administration. This year we have seen unprecedented attacks on reproductive freedom and LGBTQ equality, and an erosion of church-state separation that threatens religious minorities and the nonreligious in America.
As the new year approaches, we’re taking a look back at the Top 10 church-state separation issues of 2019 – and how AU has led the charge against these blatant violations of our Constitution.
In 2019, Americans United fought against multiple attacks on public education and religious freedom as federal and state officials proposed new private school voucher schemes that would violate religious freedom by diverting taxpayer dollars from public schools to fund private, mostly religious schools that can discriminate against children and families.
We have so far been successful in fending off the privatization goals of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who have lobbied for a nationwide, federally funded private school voucher program. This year they proposed an education budget that would divert “an unprecedented level of resources” to private schools – up to $50 billion in taxpayer funds over 10 years.
While their budget proposal didn’t offer any details for this nationwide plan, DeVos endorsed a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) to create a federally funded private school voucher scheme that would redirect $5 billion in public funds every year to private, mostly religious schools. AU promptly exposed DeVos’ lie that the voucher scheme wouldn’t require any taxpayer dollars; factcheckers also called her on this falsehood.
Trump and DeVos also proposed to spend $30 million for the Washington, D.C., voucher program – doubling the budget for the only federally funded voucher program. The funding for this program runs out this year and AU, along with the National Coalition for Public Education that we co-chair, has urged Congress to end this failing program that is not improving – and may actually be harming – students’ academic achievement.
AU also filed friend-of-the-court briefs in two federal court cases involving pro-voucher groups that are suing states to demand that taxpayers fund religious education. One case was in Maine. The other, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, is about go before the U.S. Supreme Court in January. AU, along with religious freedom and public education advocates, has been sounding the alarm that a bad ruling from the court in this case could lead to more taxpayer money funding not only private religious education, but other explicitly religious activities as well.
AU and allies also are preparing a lawsuit against Florida’s new voucher program, which violates the state constitution’s promises of providing a uniform, high-quality public education for all schoolchildren and of protecting taxpayers from being forced to fund religious education. Both Florida and Tennessee, led by newly elected pro-voucher governors, created new private school voucher schemes this year. Tennessee’s program could cost taxpayers nearly $40 million per year; Florida’s program was estimated at $130 million per year.
Public money should fund public schools, which serve the vast majority of American schoolchildren. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund private, mostly religious schools that can discriminate against children and their families. Private school vouchers are bad for students, bad for families and bad for taxpayers.
AU will continue to protect both religious freedom and public education by opposing private school voucher schemes in Congress, in statehouses and in the courts. Join us!