Call it the wisdom of Solomon.
In a perceptive 61-page decision handed down Dec. 13, U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver struck down the "Ohio Pilot Scholarship Project." Brushing aside the carefully constructed fa\xe7ade of "parental choice," Oliver ruled that voucher aid to religious schools in Cleveland uses taxpayer funds for religious indoctrination in violation of the Constitution.
Evidence for this assertion was plentiful. During the 1999-2000 school year, 46 of the 56 private schools participating in the voucher subsidy program were church-affiliated. (Thirty-four were Roman Catholic.) Thus it is no surprise that 96 percent of the students enrolled in the scheme sit at desks in sectarian schools.
Religion to these children is much more than the name over the door. Uncontested documentation filed with the court by Americans United and allied groups showed that these religious schools took firm steps throughout the school day to inculcate the tenets of their sponsoring faith.
Students--and sometimes their parents--are required to attend mass or other religious services. Religion classes are mandatory and all instruction reflects church teachings. The entire curriculum reflects the sectarian perspective of the school.
At St. John Nottingham Lutheran School, for example, students are taught religion through weekly chapel services, Bible studies, catechism, church history class and confirmation instruction. According to the school handbook, even reading, math, science and other secular subjects are taught with a "Christ-centered approach."
Despite this pervasively religious character, these church educational ministries have benefited from millions of tax dollars. In the current year alone, over $11 million has been earmarked for the Ohio voucher program.
Under the terms of the plan, up to $2,500 is allocated for each voucher student. Participating schools receive checks for the designated amount and then parents sign them over to the schools. Tax funds flow directly from the treasury to the coffers of religious schools, where clergy or other school officials can spend the money for any reason they choose.
Parents who want to make use of the voucher program are severely limited in their "choices." Since religious schools dominate the Cleveland program, the only realistic "choice" is an institution pervaded with sectarian dogma--dogma the parents may completely disagree with.
Judge Oliver looked at these facts and came to the only possible conclusion. "A program that is so skewed toward religion necessarily results in indoctrination attributable to the government and provides financial incentives to attend religious schools," he observed. "For both of these reasons, the court finds the Program to be in violation of the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment]."
Oliver noted that the framers of the Constitution sought to protect Americans from majority rule and government interference in religion. Quoting from Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, the judge noted that our nation's founders believed it "sinful and tyrannical" to force people to support a faith they don't believe in (or even one they do). He also cited James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, a document that warns against government taxation for religion.
Although Oliver conceded that the Supreme Court has allowed some forms of aid to religious schools, he insisted that the justices have never upheld the kind of direct assistance to religion under way in Ohio.
The Simmons-Harris v. Zelman decision is welcome because of its constitutional impact. This is the first direct federal court ruling on the merits of voucher aid to religious schools. As such, it sets an important benchmark in the judicial struggle to preserve church-state separation.
But just as important, this decision brings a measure of justice to a sordid chapter in Ohio public life.
As the Akron Beacon Journal has reported (see "Outrage In Ohio," page 7), the Ohio voucher program in question was created by former Gov. George Voinovich as part of a shameless campaign to subsidize Catholic schools and curry favor with Catholic voters. Voinovich, who now holds a seat in the U.S. Senate, plotted with the Catholic hierarchy to extend massive funding to religious schools, while Ohio public schools languished. The Cleveland voucher program was one component of that scheme.
Voinovich's disgraceful dereliction of public responsibility amply illustrates the bitter fruits of church-state union. When elected officials conspire with religious authorities to raid the treasury on behalf of parochial interests, religious freedom, public schools and the public interest all are sorely damaged.
It was just this kind of collusion between the secular and the sacred that the Founding Fathers of this nation meant to prohibit through the guarantees of the Constitution. Churches are free to open schools if they wish, but they are not free to coerce contributions to those educational ministries from the taxpayers.
The Ohio battle is not yet over, of course. The Simmons-Harris decision will be appealed and will likely reach the U.S. Supreme Court. It is not too much to say that the very principle of church-state separation will stand in the dock when it does.
In the meantime, all Americans who care about their freedoms must let their federal and state elected representatives know that diverting tax money to religious schools is unacceptable, period. The standard is simple: Public funds for public services; voluntary donations for religious ministries, including schools. No compromise. No equivocation.