When Public Schools Get Religion

Article excerpt


Today, as you sit reading this magazine, the U.S. Supreme Court is one vote away from approving a scheme that would require all Americans to pay for the religious education of a few.

On June 28 the high court handed down a ruling in the case Mitchell v. Helms, which concerned the constitutionality of a federal program that gives computers, audio-visual equipment, and other types of aid to private sectarian schools at taxpayer expense. The Court upheld the program by a 6-3 vote. That was bad enough. What's worse is that four justices indicated that they would have gone much further. Under their legal theory, just about any government aid to religious schools or other religious projects would be deemed constitutional. Furthermore, failure of the government to provide that aid is bigotry and discrimination against religion, they declared.

If you want to know what life in the United States would be like without the wall of separation between church and state, read the majority opinion in Helms, penned by Justice Clarence Thomas. If portions of that wall collapse--and they just might within the next few years--public education will be the first institution to take the hit. Thomas's opinion in Helms provide a peek at what we're in for if that happens. It's not a pretty sight.

How bad will it be? It could be quite bad. For starters, every taxpaying American will find himself or herself supporting a variety of sectarian enterprises. Not only will Americans be handed the bill for parochial school aid programs, vouchers and other types of tax funding of religious schools, they will also be forced to prop up religious-based schemes under the rubric of "charitable choice."

Of course, taxpayers already support religious enterprises, especially things like soup kitchens and homeless shelters run by religious groups. These projects get millions annually in federal and state funds.

But in the past, these institutions, though run by religious groups, could not be "pervasively sectarian." In other words, they could not be too religious. If they were, the funding could be cut off. This standard has been the death blow to many efforts to aid religious schools. Since the schools exist to impart religious instruction, they were obviously "pervasively sectarian" and thus ineligible for taxpayer support.

Thomas and his three compatriots (Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy along with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist) would toss the "pervasively sectarian"' standard right out the window In his plurality opinion, Thomas ridiculed the idea of barring tax aid to "pervasively sectarian" institutions, saying the court should "regret" ever having devised that rule. In its place, Thomas would substitute a legal theory holding that, as long as the government funds a variety of programs, some religious and some not, the First Amendment is not violated.

In terms of the separation of church and state, this is a giant step backwards. More than 200 years ago, Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison fought to end all religious establishments and taxpayer support of religion. Other framers, like Patrick Henry, believed that, while there should be no state established church, the government should be permitted to favor Christianity in a general sense, giving money and aid to a variety of Christian denominations. This policy common in some colonies, is called "non-preferentialism" or "multiple establishment."

Jefferson and Madison explicitly rejected this concept. They believed that no one should be required to support religion against his or her will-be it one church or 20 churches.

For many years, the Jeffersonian-Madisonian view held sway at the high court, and a number of programs that awarded tax aid to religious education were struck down. Now those precedents are being eroded or, in some cases, overturned outright. …