Editorial: No Vouching for Religion

This week we got both legislative and judicial pronouncements on school vouchers from the federal government. The first was the House of Representatives’ extension of SOAR, the federal Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act. The bill passed the House of Representatives essentially along party lines (four percent of Republicans voted against along with 100 percent of Democrats).

With this bill, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who has been a hawk on most everything federal budget related, shepherded support for extending private school vouchers in Washington D.C. to the tune of up to another $100 million over five years. A large number of vouchers utilized in this program have resulted in students attending Catholic schools (Catholicism is also Boehner’s religion).

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And this is alright, says the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision this week, the Court, again aligned in a conservative-liberal split, indirectly upheld Arizona’s voucher program, by saying that a taxpayer who does not partake of vouchers lacks standing to challenge the program on First Amendment religious grounds.

There are a variety of policy arguments in favor of and against the use of vouchers for private education. But the two criticisms we offer today relate to the effects on the public education system, and in particular what it has done for members of our Jewish community, and on separation of church and state.

Public education is and has been an essential part of the Jewish and immigrant experience in America. It has allowed those of meager or average means to obtain excellent educations (who could ignore the impact, for instance, that Soldan and University City high schools had on the development of the Jewish population in St. Louis?) It has brought those of different cultures, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds together. It has helped us learn to be contributing members of an overall society, as well as our own Jewish community. And it has made a statement, even if and when the execution is flawed, about the importance of education to each and every child in America.

Taking money from public schools either directly or indirectly to be directed toward private schools is a terrible idea. It is money that cannot be spent on public education. It is money that private schools are taking from taxpayers. If one believes that voucher money in the form of a tax credit isn’t “public,” then it’s only one logical step from a conclusion that we do not all have the obligation to support public education. By making the decision a choice rather than an obligation, one helps make the argument that it’s fine if public education withers and dies. We don’t agree.

That issue doesn’t on its face delve into the religious question. But if one believes that it’s ok to take tax dollars, either directly or indirectly, and apply them to a child’s religious education, that view accepts that withdrawing such funds from the public coffers does not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishment of religion. The Supreme Court majority clearly believes there’s no violation.

We understand that there may be those within our community that think vouchers are a good idea, as they can serve as a window into funding private religious education. That would allow for a financial benefit for Jewish day schools, and we certainly respect and support the need for strong Jewish education as part of our community’s future health and prosperity. But the slope is simply too slippery, as Justice Elena Kagan explains in her dissent:

“Suppose a State desires to reward Jews-by, say, $500 per year-for their religious devotion. Should the nature of taxpayers’ concern vary if the State allows Jews to claim the aid on their tax returns, in lieu of receiving an annual stipend? Or assume a State wishes to subsidize the ownership of crucifixes. It could purchase the religious symbols in bulk and distribute them to all takers. Or it could mail a reimbursement check to any individual who buys her own and submits a receipt for the purchase. Or it could authorize that person to claim a tax credit equal to the price she paid. Now, really-do taxpayers have less reason to complain if the State selects the last of these three options? The Court today says they do, but that is wrong. The effect of each form of subsidy is the same, on the public fisc and on those who contribute to it. Regardless of which mechanism the State uses, taxpayers have an identical stake in ensuring that the State’s exercise of its taxing and spending power complies with the Constitution.”

We couldn’t say it better ourselves. The Court and the House are wrong.