Playing by Different Rules: If the Supreme Court Upholds Vouchers, Taxpayers May Have to Fund Sectarian Schools That Practice Religious Discrimination, Teach Controversial Material and Shun Accountability

By Benen, Steve | Church & State, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Playing by Different Rules: If the Supreme Court Upholds Vouchers, Taxpayers May Have to Fund Sectarian Schools That Practice Religious Discrimination, Teach Controversial Material and Shun Accountability


Benen, Steve, Church & State


Sister M. Angela Shaughnessy knows religious schools play by different rules than those in the public school system.

In a 1996 address to parochial school officials in New Orleans, the Roman Catholic nun talked about the freedoms afforded to private schools.

"People assume that students and faculty in the private sector have the same rights as those in public sector," said Shaughnessy, who is an attorney as well as a member of a religious order. "They don't."

Shaughnessy continued, "For instance, freedom of speech, that First Amendment guarantee, doesn't apply in a Catholic school." She went on to explain that private school administrators are free to ignore due process rights, the freedom of the student press and Fourth Amendment protections against improper searches and seizures.

With school vouchers now on the agenda at the Supreme Court, it may be a good time to take a closer look at the schools that will be receiving tax dollars if the justices approve the voucher concept. Lawmakers in Congress, right-wing media commentators and voucher supporters hail religious schools as models that deserve public support. But critics note that some private schools practice religious discrimination, teach controversial curricula and avoid the kind of accountability we expect from publicly funded institutions.

Here are the facts.

How Religious Schools Operate

Religious schools are free of many employment regulations from the state. Because they are considered ministries and are funded by private donations, they can hire and fire staff based on religious criteria.

In Montgomery County, Md., for example, Montrose Christian School was taken to court by three former employees who argued that they were fired for not being Southern Baptists.

In the final days of the 1996 school year, Montrose Christian, which is sponsored by Montrose Baptist Church, welcomed a new pastor and principal, both of whom made personnel changes promptly. To those dismissed, the firings appeared to be religiously discriminatory.

Mary Lou Jones, a Catholic, was fired despite 18 years of service at the school as a secretary. Sharon Walsh, Jones' daughter and also a Catholic, was fired from her 14-year secretarial job the same day. Helen Poole, a Methodist, lost her job after six years of service as a cafeteria worker.

The women sued the school with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that the dismissals were inconsistent with local civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination on religious grounds. School officials denied a religious bias, telling a jury they simply wanted to employ only staff who are members of the church.

In April 2001, the Maryland Supreme Court ruled in favor of the church. The court concluded that Montrose Christian, as a privately funded ministry, could

hire and fire anyone they pleased.

Similarly, once religious schools decide who to hire, school officials have the discretion of imposing stringent religious rules on their staff.

In New Orleans, for example, many teachers in the city's Catholic schools were surprised to receive a memo over the summer warning them that their jobs were at stake if their personal choices, even far outside the classroom, were inconsistent with the church's Code of Canon Law.

In preparation for the 2001-2002 school year, the Archdiocese of New Orleans decided to reemphasize the significance the church places on schools' "lifestyle policy," which applies to all school employees, regardless of their faith tradition. As a result, staffers at Catholic schools were reminded that they are prohibited from living with a sex partner outside of marriage, having children out of wedlock, marrying outside of the church, divorcing or viewing pornography. Employees also cannot remarry without an annulment of a previous marriage, which according to archdiocese officials can take up to 30 months. …

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