2013 State of the States: With Many Legislatures Tilting Right and 'Prayer' Caucuses on the Prowl, Church-State Separation May Be in Trouble in the Coming Year
Brown, Simon, Church & State
Multiple courts have said "no" to states that want public schools to teach "intelligent design" creationism in science classes, but that doesn't faze Montana State Rep. Clayton Fiscus (R-Billings).
Fiscus, a Tea Party favorite whose professional background is in real estate, asked the legislative services staff of the Montana House of Representatives in November to come up with a bill for the 2013 legislative session that would "require public schools to teach intelligent design along with evolution."
Lawmakers like Fiscus often push their agenda in defiance of established constitutional law, and sometimes hope they can create a case to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn previous decisions that contradict their personal beliefs. Americans United combated a wide array of state-level legislative schemes in 2012 that sought to tear down the critical safeguards that keep church and state separate.
With most state legislatures starting their annual sessions this month, here is a look at some of the top threats to church-state separation ex expected in 2013, including school voucher bills, creationism ploys, "conscience" exemptions, anti-shariah legislation and so-called "religious freedom" and "prayer" caucuses.
* Religious School Voucher Subsidies
Americans United anticipates proposals that benefit religious and other private schools to surface in many states this year, with major pushes expected in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Texas and Tennessee.
In New Jersey, a voucher scheme is likely in the works thanks to the persistence of Gov. Chris Christie (R). Christie tried to implement a program in 2012, with a proposal that would have cost the state $825 million. It would have provided 40,000 eligible students with vouchers -$8,000 for elementary school and $11,000 for high school--the Newark Star-Ledger reported.
Christie said in June of 2012 that the bill was dead for that year, but vowed "to continue to push for it," the Teaneck Patch reported.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) is expected to seek the expansion of an existing voucher subsidy program. He said in November that his agenda for the coming year includes doing more to push vouchers, though he didn't go into specifics, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) was quick to criticize Walker's mission to "hyper scrutinize" public schools while giving more taxpayer money to private schools that are "unaccountable" and have been shown in studies to produce students who perform no better than their public school peers, the Wisconsin State Journal said.
In Texas, meanwhile, a serious showdown is expected over private school vouchers, with sharp divisions even among members of the state GOP. State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), founder of his state's Tea Party Caucus and chair of the Senate Education Committee, held a one-sided hearing in August featuring a parade of "school choice" advocates.
The Austin American-Statesman noted that Texas cut $5.4 billion from public schools in the last legislative session. Patrick seems to subscribe to a philosophy of siphoning even more money away from those schools and then blaming them for their supposed failures so he can turn around and fund private schools.
"No student should be locked into a poor performing school because that happens to be where they live," he told the American-Statesman. "I'm a big supporter of public education, and we have a lot of schools that are doing a great job, but we must also recognize the truth that we have a lot of schools that are not performing at the level that they need to be."
Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) were expected at press time to announce their voucher legislation within a few weeks, but it seems they may not get the warmest reception for the plan--even from some fellow Republicans.
The American-Statesman reported in August that Rep. …