Betsy DeVos: Religion, Money, and School Choice

When we think about public schools and religion, there are some clear boundaries, and it is important to recognize them and understand how various churches and Christian denominations understand them, because there are distinctions. These issues are relevant today because some people who are part of Donald Trump’s administration want to bend the boundaries.

Protecting freedom of religion, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The first clause (the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s endorsing any one religion as the religion of our society, and the second clause (the Free Exercise Clause) guarantees citizens of the United States the right to practice whatever religion they choose or not to practice a religion. Our Constitution protects religious diversity, which has historically been understood to mean that public schools, defined by their acceptance of public tax dollars, may not force children to practice any particular religion.

It is also essential to understand these issues with some nuance.  Betsy DeVos was brought up in what is known as one of the Reformed denominations, and she is known to want to bend the boundaries on protection of religious freedom, but this does not mean that all members of Reformed Protestant denominations share her views about bending the First Amendment rules in publicly funded schools.  The Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ, for example, are well known Reformed communions that strenuously defend the separation of church and state in public schools.

Neither should it be assumed that all charitable partnerships of churches with public schools cross the boundary and abuse the principle of religious liberty.  It is perfectly appropriate for churches to donate backpacks filled with school supplies, tutor children in public schools, help set up and staff after-school programs, and set up and help staff computer labs near schools that lack such facilities as long as the work is charitable and lacks the goal and practice of evangelism.  Many such programs across the country assist children and teachers, and their sponsors adhere to principles declared by the First Amendment Center and endorsed by Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, and Protestant communities of faith.

In a very important article in Rolling Stone, Betsy DeVos’ Holy War, Janet Reitman, the reporter, has provided a very important profile of Betsy DeVos and her circle of Christian extremists. But in some subtle ways, Reitman makes assumptions about Reformed church denominations and assumptions about church partnerships with public schools that call into question the commitment of those involved with public school support programs. All members of Reformed churches are not extremists, just as not all volunteers and sponsors of school-congregational partnerships are involved in proselytizing.

But, as Reitman accurately portrays her, Betsy DeVos is an extremist and her support for the expansion of vouchers and tuition tax credits crosses the boundary drawn by the U.S. Constitution to protect religious freedom.  Reitman’s Rolling Stone article is important because it explains the activities and philanthropic contributions of Dick and Betsy DeVos to promote their particular religious agenda.  They seek to make our society conform to their own religious beliefs.

Reitman describes, for example, the support of Michigan’s DeVos family and Betsy DeVos’s parents and their family, the Princes, of a secretive organization, the Council for National Policy, a “little-known group of several hundred of the country’s most powerful religious and social conservatives.”  The Council for National Policy was founded in 1981 by evangelical leader Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and co-author of the Left Behind apocalyptic series of books. Reitman lists other members whose names have leaked out: “Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt; financier Foster Friess; religious leaders Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Tony Perkins; right wing operatives like Ralph Reed, Jack Abramoff, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation;  the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre; Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese; and Republican members of Congress like Tom DeLay and Jesse Helms.  More recent members now occupy roles in the White House, notably Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president.  Rich DeVos, who described the group as a nexus of ‘the doers and the donors,’ served two stints as CNP’s president.”

What is the significance of this alliance of ideological conservatives and extremist Christian religious leaders? “What became clear as the 2000s progressed was just how much these two agendas had fused. Under the direction of Charles and David Koch, and with increasing influence from the likes of the DeVos family, the Republican big tent shifted, from the Grand Old Party to what one longtime strategist who’s spent years mapping these networks refers to as the ‘Grand New Alliance’ of libertarianism, populism and religious conservatism… This new perspective, sometimes called the ‘biblical worldview,’ was being sold at special ‘pastor policy briefings’ across the country… At one I attended in Orlando, in 2012, David Barton, a former vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and a leading Christian nationalist, patiently explained to a room of Florida pastors, why a radically reduced federal government was part of God’s plan. Jesus, for example, was opposed to the capital-gains tax, Barton said, citing passages in the books of Romans and Matthew.”

School privatization through vouchers (or tuition tax credits which are a variation on vouchers) is definitely central to this plan.  Why?  Here is how Patrick O’Donnell begins his story on Ohio vouchers in this past Sunday’s Plain Dealer: “Almost all of the money from Ohio’s main tuition voucher programs—97 percent of it—flows to private religious schools, a Plain Dealer examination of records from the 2015-16 school year shows. Christian schools, as expected, receive the bulk—more than $140 million in state tax dollars a year.  Catholic and Christian schools in Cleveland are the biggest winners, thanks to a Cleveland-only voucher program that was the first in the state when started in 1996. The top three private schools to benefit—Cleveland Central Catholic, St. Joseph Academy and Metro Catholic—are schools in Cleveland, as are seven of the top 10 in the state.”

On December 20, 1999, Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr., of the United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, found the Cleveland Voucher Program unconstitutional because it violated the Constitutional protection of religious liberty.  Page after page of Judge Oliver’s decision quotes participating schools’ mission statements.  One school explained, “An integral part of the school program is instruction in religious truths and values. These values permeate the whole atmosphere of the school.”  Judge Oliver’s decision declared: “The court concludes that the Voucher Program violates the Establishment Clause… because it results in prohibited governmental indoctrination and because it defines its recipients by reference to religion.”

In 2002, however, in a split 5-4 decision, the Rehnquist Supreme Court declared the program does not violate the U.S. Constitution because the state of Ohio grants the vouchers to the parents, not directly to religious schools, and the parents then choose where to educate their children.  The state of Ohio, said the Supreme Court, is offering school choice to parents, not spending money directly on religious education.

Reitman describes many of the organizations funded by Dick and Betsy DeVos that have re-framed vouchers as “school choice”  without any connection to the boundary between church and state—thereby changing many people’s understanding of the Constitution—and that helped drive the political shift that changed the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The DeVos and Prince families have donated millions of dollars to the Council for National Policy, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the American Federation for Children, the Alliance for School Choice, All Children Matter, the Great Lakes Education Project, and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.  Another recipient of DeVos money has been the Institute for Justice, whose attorneys have brought and litigated pro-voucher lawsuits across the states.

Reitman’s Rolling Stone article explores what she calls the holy trinity of wealth, politics and Christian ideology that she believes Betsy DeVos epitomizes: “No organization more perfectly represented the merging of faith and free-market capitalism than the Amway Corp., which Dick’s father, Rich DeVos, founded with his high school friend Jay Van Andel in 1959 to sell vitamins and cleaning products.  Amway—short for ‘American Way’—now has annual revenues of $8.8 billion and a weblike network of salespeople across the globe who embrace the company’s ‘Founders’ Fundamentals’: faith, freedom, hope and reward,” a “merger of free-market ideology and the religious right.”