By Rachel Laser
The Supreme Court’s Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue decision corrupts the foundational principle of church-state separation, just as Citizens United corrupted the political process. The separation of church and state is a fundamental American value that protects religious freedom for all. This court has overturned decades of precedent in an effort to privilege certain religious beliefs and have them dominate our civic life.
Forcing taxpayers to pay for private religious education – as Montana’s tax-credit voucher program does – is a fundamental violation of their religious freedom. Because religious schools are the epicenter of religious influence on the next generation, it’s imperative that the members of the faith support those schools, not the taxpayers at large.
Additionally, today’s ruling has the effect of forcing Montana taxpayers to support a program that funds discrimination. Too often, religious schools reject civil rights for women and LGBTQ people, and promulgate religiously based interpretations of science, civics and history. Ten of the 12 religious schools in Montana’s voucher program had discriminatory policies, including permitting expulsion of students who identify as LGBTQ and refusing admission to students with disabilities.
Let’s not forget that vouchers were first developed to evade integration orders and fund segregation academies specifically designed to keep black and white students apart. Even now, national data show that private schools tend to be more segregated than similarly situated public schools and enroll higher populations of white students compared to public schools. Private-school vouchers continue to increase rates of segregation in schools.
Three-quarters of state constitutions contain provisions intended to protect taxpayers from being forced to fund religion, a long-held traditional value. The Supreme Court’s decision sets a dangerous precedent, especially with concurring justices insisting that those state constitutional rules should be null and void.
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that taxpayer-funded vouchers must fund private religious schools if they fund secular private schools, it is more important than ever that we fight to oppose all private school voucher programs. Public dollars should fund public schools, which educate 90 percent of our nation’s students. Especially now that public schools have added distance-learning and other new educational services in response to the pandemic, every public penny should be spent on helping them provide quality education. We must reject the Trump-DeVos agenda of private school voucher programs that divert desperately needed resources away from public schools in order to fund private religious instruction.
All Americans, both religious and secular, who care about religious freedom should join us in fighting vouchers and being mindful of the important role federal judges can play in securing our rights. We need more judges who unabashedly support the Constitution’s promise of separation of religion and government.”
Rachel Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Merrill Shapiro, a Palm Coast resident and a member of the AU board, chairs the FlaglerLive Board of Directors.