According to Benjamin Wermund of POLITICO, the religious views of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, are closely connected to her philosophy of school choice. Wermund shares a transcript and video clips of a 15-year-old interview in which Dick and Betsy DeVos attribute their promotion of school choice and privatization through publicly funded school vouchers to their Christian values and their desire to “advance God’s Kingdom.”
Betsy DeVos explains: “We both believe that competition and choices make everyone better and that ultimately if the system that prevails in the United States today had more competition—there were more choices for people to make freely—that all of the schools would become better as a result.” Wermund continues: “However, the DeVoses also say public schools have ‘displaced’ the church in terms of importance.” Wermund quotes Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, who was also part of the interview: “The church—which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community—has been displaced by the school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community. It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment—whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be—that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.”
In the interview, Betsy DeVos is asked why the DeVoses have not spent their philanthropic dollars to support religious schools themselves. She replies that they, “want to reform the whole system to bring ‘greater Kingdom gain… We could give every single penny we have, everybody in this room could give every single penny they had and it wouldn’t begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country and what is in many cases… not well spent.'”
Despite that in the 2002 decision in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the use of publicly funded vouchers at religious schools as long as the voucher is given to the family and not directly to the school, endorsement by government of religious institutions is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. Provisions in a number of state constitutions also explicitly reject the expenditure of public dollars for sectarian institutions, including for tuition vouchers and tuition tax credits.
Here is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The first part of the First Amendment (referred to as the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s in any way favoring—“establishing”— any particular religion , and the second clause guarantees residents of the United States the right to worship according to their own traditions.
Despite that Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, seems to have other views based on her own Christian beliefs, the principles of the First Amendment have been endorsed by religious people throughout our history. America’s major religious denominations have strongly endorsed the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom in the public schools. Ensuring that public schools do not “establish” or favor one set of religious beliefs over another means that parents will not have to worry that a school will teach religious beliefs contrary to the tradition of their family.
In 1995 the First Amendment Center convened a group of religious and educational leaders who endorsed a set of principles (Finding Common Ground, pp. 11-13):
- “Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person.
- “Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation.
- “Public schools must model the democratic process and constitutional principles in the development of policies and curricula.
- “Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.”
The communities of faith that subscribed to these principles were: the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Christian Coalition, the Council on Islamic Education, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Many religious organizations have passed strong resolutions to affirm their support of public schools that honor the First Amendment principle of religious liberty. Some have even formally opposed providing publicly funded vouchers for students to attend parochial schools. I must clarify Wermund’s commentary in one important respect: Dick and Betsy DeVos’s beliefs, as Wermund describes them, represent neither the views of all Calvinist or Reformed Protestants nor the policy resolutions of their communions.
Here is the statement passed in 1999 by the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches: “Although many of the member denominations of the National Council of the Churches of Christ have issued statements supportive of public education, and although the NCC itself has made its pro-public schools stance clear for several decades, in recent years the voices of our churches have been largely absent from the ongoing debate about the meaning and future of our nation’s schools. As a result, public consciousness has been dominated by religious and political groups whose view of public schools is largely negative. With this statement we propose to bring the voices of our member churches back into the present debate, bringing with us our traditional support for… strengthening… the public schools… While we acknowledge and affirm the contribution of private schools to the welfare of children and the nation, public schools are the primary route for most children—especially the children of poverty—into the full participation in our economic, political, and community life. As a consequence, all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, have a moral responsibility to support, (and) strengthen… the public schools… Just as we encourage schools to ensure that all religions are treated with fairness and respect, so we urge parents and others to refrain from the temptation to use public schools to advance the cause of any one religion or ethnic tradition… We… caution that government aid to primary and secondary religious schools raises constitutional problems, and could undermine the schools’ independence and/or compromise their religious message.”
Later in 2010, the over-sixty members of the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches voted to adopt a pastoral letter that was sent to the President, the U.S. Secretary of Education and members of Congress. The NCC Governing Board’s pastoral statement declares: “As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children… We support democratic governance of public schools. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all children. We believe that democratic operation of public schools is our best hope for ensuring that families can secure the services to which their children have a right. On balance, we believe that if government invests public funds in charter schools that report to private boards, government, not the vicissitudes of the marketplace, should be expected to provide oversight to protect the common good.”
Several decades ago, in a 1985 pronouncement, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ—the denomination where I staffed work in public education justice from 1998 until 2013—more explicitly rejects the use of publicly funded vouchers to pay students’ tuition in religious and private schools: “We defend the right of parents to choose alternative, private, religious, or independent schools, but continue to declare that those schools should be funded by private sources of income.”
Although very often we take the basic principles of civics for granted, we need to be able to articulate clearly and concisely what the First Amendment is about. The purpose of this post has been to review the basic principle of religious liberty and to clarify that Betsy DeVos’s views on religion and public education are extremist; they not shared by the American religious mainstream.