States of Emergency: Avalanche of Bad Bills Threatens Church-State Separation in Legislature across America

Article excerpt

Utah seems like a strange state to experiment with voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools.

Politically and culturally, the Beehive State is dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Seventy percent of the state's residents belong to the church. Most Mormons are content to send their children to public schools, where they are often released during the school day for religious instruction offsite. There aren't even many private schools in Utah.

Yet last month, the Utah legislature fast-tracked a sweeping voucher bill. It whipped through the House and Senate and was quickly signed by Gov. John Huntsman Jr. The measure contains no income cap and would offer vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000 to virtually every student in the state. Regulation is light: Participating schools would have to enroll at least 40 students, provide results of standardized tests and submit to an outside audit once every four years.

What happened? Voucher opponents say it all boils down to one acronym: ALEC.

The letters stand for American Legislative Exchange Council. This shadowy, but well-funded organization of libertarian-oriented business interests, put Utah under a full-court press.

The Salt Lake Tribune outlined ALEC's strategy recently: "Gather lawmakers in one place (with taxpayer subsidies), establish first-name relationships, then hand out 'model' legislation co-written by--guess who?--corporate America."

The newspaper quoted Alan Rosenthal, Rutgers University professor of public policy, who said, "From the point of view of the corporations, they have devised themselves an extremely effective organization." (The group's budget is $6 million annually.)

The Tribune noted that Utah Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble (R-Provo) is the state chairman for ALEC and that he traveled, on the taxpayers' dime, to ALEC functions in Chicago, Texas, San Francisco and Washington in 2005 and 2006.

Utah isn't the only state that laces a high-stakes battle over vouchers this year. Similar battles are brewing in Georgia, Texas and other states. These bills are examples of a new wave of attacks on separation of church and state in state legislatures.

The assaults are by no means limited to efforts to aid religious education. Other bills focus on issues like religion in public schools, controversies related to marriage, the display of religious symbols by government and the teaching of "intelligent design" creationism in public schools.

The spate of new state-based attacks on church-state separation is a stark reminder that the fight to maintain the wall of separation between church and state never ends. The outlook in Congress might be brighter in light of recent political changes, but many states remain roiling cauldrons of controversy.

"The states are always wildcards," said Rachel Joseph Marah, who has been monitoring legislative activity all over the country for Americans United. "Bills can pop up and begin moving with little notice. We always have to be on guard"

A recent survey by Americans United found bills threatening the separation of church and state pending in a number of states. A round-up follows:

Vouchers and Tuition Tax Credits

Voucher advocates in Georgia are so desperate to pass a plan giving tax aid to religious and other private schools that they hope to sneak one in through the back door by exploiting a vulnerable population: students with special needs.

The measure, Senate Bill 10, also known as the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act, would allocate state money to students with disabilities, encouraging them to transfer to private schools.

When the measure was unveiled in January, Holli Cash, a member of the Cobb County School Board, was unimpressed.

Cash, whose daughter has Down's Syndrome, saw through the ruse immediately. …