The idea of religious liberty in American public education is basic. This is the promise that the U.S. Constitution protects children from the teaching of somebody else’s religious views at public expense in their schools. The First Amendment of the Constitution protects religion in two ways: government may not impose religion (public schools may not teach religious doctrine) and government must protect the free exercise of religion.
The idea of religious freedom is being perverted in myriad ways by those who perpetually try to figure out how public schools or publicly funded schools can teach religion. Yesterday, Stephanie Simon published a fascinating and detailed article at Politico about the many ways school vouchers and closely related tuition tax credits are being used by those who want to promote their religion.
Simon summarizes the thinking of Neal McCluskey, a libertarian analyst from the Cato Institute, for example, who says that public funds ought to be allowed to go to schools that promote all kinds of religious values. Then parents should be free to choose for their children the schools that reflect their own beliefs. “If you want very rigorous evolution instruction, you should be able to choose that. But you have to let other people choose something else.” McCluskey’s thinking gets us to a very peculiar definition of scientific thinking: you should be able to choose for your child what kind of science you want your child to believe. Most scientists, however, would define scientific thinking as a matter of empiricism not a matter of belief.
According to Simon, only 250,000 students use vouchers and tuition tax credit scholarships, a tiny percentage of the more than 50 million children in public schools in the United States, but the number has grown 30 percent since 2010. Not-for-profit 501(c)(4) organizations actively pushing vouchers are the American Federation for Children, with leadership from the far-right Betsy DeVos, and Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group. Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships are constitutional under the U.S. Constitution under the 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, in which the Supreme Court said vouchers can subsidize religious education if the state funds flow to the parents, not directly to the school, and if the parents have a choice about where to use the voucher. Simon describes voucher programs in place in a growing number of states whose state constitutions do not prohibit them.
During his term as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. John Thomas authored a profound pastoral letter that endorsed independent scientific inquiry: “Through the scientific advances of our time, we are seeing nature with new eyes, and what we see fills us with wonder and praise. Stunning images of deep space are like new windows on creation. Microscopic details of living cells show us the unexpected intricacies of our biology. Mathematical equations unravel the secrets of the first seconds following the birth of the universe. Through these gifts of science, we look across ever-expanding vistas of cosmic beauty, almost to the beginning of time itself. What we see evokes wonder and humility, and we hear within ourselves a new voice arising and singing an anthem of praise that reverberates through the whole creation.” Rev. Thomas understands that children ought to learn science including the theory of evolution, not religious stories of creation, in their public school science classes.
Just last week in a blog post at Chicago Theological Seminary where Rev. Thomas now teaches, he declares his support for public funding of public schools and raises an additional set of concerns about tax credits. These diversions of tax money to private entities are, “one more part of the relentless chipping away at the public in our public school system.” “A century ago the Progressive era ended the tyranny of business tycoons who controlled utilities, railroads, state houses, banking, city halls, and the wages and working conditions of millions, all without the inconvenience of public oversight. Today a new elite is returning us to a bygone era many of us thought we’d left in the 19th century. The chipping away of the public is well underway.”
As a religious leader who supports each person’s freedom of religious belief, Thomas describes the importance of scientific research. He also argues that tax dollars be directed to support a vibrant public space which all citizens, whatever their faith, are obligated to support, and from which all citizens, whatever their religion, can benefit. Taxes, according to Rev. Thomas, should not siphoned off for private or religious purposes. About a recent proposal for tax credits Thomas writes: “… it represents one more part of the relentless chipping away at the public in our public school system. By encouraging voluntary private donations by corporations and individuals directly to schools of their choice – public and private – we further shift control of the education of our children away from the public to the private sector. The tax credits further reduce state revenue, squeezing already inadequate public funding of our most struggling school systems. What happened to the notion that a fair tax system should support public responsibilities?”