Magazine article The Christian Century

Vouch for It?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Vouch for It?

Article excerpt

The founder of this magazine, Charles Clayton Morrison, was fiercely opposed to any form of government support for parochial schools. No doubt he would have been distressed by last month's decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled that tax money can be used to send poor children in Milwaukee to religious schools. Morrison, who was editor of the Century until 1948, was a strict separationist on church-state issues, and he thought any scheme that allowed tax dollars to find their way into the coffers of religious schools (he was mostly worried about tax money going to Catholic schools) undermined religious liberty and violated the "no establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment.

But the Wisconsin judges were not worried about "establishment." They were focused on that other clause of the First Amendment--the one guaranteeing "free exercise" of religion. They didn't see why parents, who can already cash in their vouchers at secular private schools, should be denied the ability to use them at religious schools as well. To deny them this choice would be to infringe on their "free exercise" rights.

In many debates about church-state relations the "no establishment" types in the Morrison tradition are pitted against those with a more expansive view of "free exercise." But, as a number of legal scholars have argued lately, it's a mistake to set the argument up this way--as if the two clauses of the First Amendment are competing with each other and the struggle is over which is more important. The point of both clauses is to protect religious liberty, and the "no establishment" clause is designed to buttress the "free exercise" clause, not to act as a counterweight to it.

The chief result of this insight is to expand the areas in which government can indirectly support or accommodate religion. A government action that supports religion is not necessarily objectionable so long as the action doesn't support or "establish" one religion over another or favor a religious view over a secular one. And to the extent that the government action furthers the free exercise of religion, it may be constitutionally required.

The Milwaukee voucher program fits this description. Though state money will find its way to religious schools, the state is not "establishing" a religion, for it is neither endorsing religious schools over secular schools nor endorsing a particular kind of religion. It is simply allowing parents to choose a religious school with the same freedom they have to choose another private school with a certain educational philosophy or a certain kind of curriculum. It's hard to see how a plan that allows parents to choose every sort of private school except a religious one is not a hindrance to free exercise.

The legal debate on this issue is far from settled, of course. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on the validity of a Milwaukee-style voucher program. Nevertheless, there is increasing acceptance in the courts and in Congress (and among the general public) of voucher plans in which the government gives a check not to a religious school but to parents, who are free to use the voucher at the school of their choice. Voucher plans, in this respect, resemble the popular GI Bill of 1944 which gave tuition stipends to military veterans for use at a school of their choice--which could be a religious school like Wheaton or Notre Dame as well as a secular private college or a state university. …

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