Church-State Debate Erupts In The States

School Voucher Campaign Resurfaces As Legislatures Weigh Dozens Of Bills That Would Merge Religion And State

When New Jersey’s new governor, Christopher J. Christie, unveiled his choice for state education commissioner Jan. 13, advocates of public education and church-state separation could only groan.

The new education head, Bret D. Schundler, is known mainly for his advocacy of voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools. As mayor of Jersey City in the 1990s, Schundler pushed the idea incessantly; he also made vouchers the cornerstone of two failed gubernatorial campaigns in 2001 and 2005.

“We agree on the type of significant reform that needs to happen in our educational system here in New Jersey,” Christie said. “I want a strong, reasonable, bold leader who’s going to help me implement those policies.”

Schundler’s appointment signals that Christie, a Republican who advocated state aid to religious and other private schools during the campaign, will move quickly to push some type of voucher plan in the Garden State.

It’s unclear what form that will take. During the campaign, Christie touted a full-fledged voucher program as well as a scheme aimed at funneling tax aid to private schools through corporate tax credits.

A few hundred miles to the south in Virginia, public school advocates are bracing for a similar battle.

Virginia’s new governor, Robert McDonnell, has appointed Gerard Robinson as the state’s new education secretary. Robinson serves as president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-voucher front group run by religious school funding advocate Howard Fuller at Marquette University, a Roman Catholic institution in Milwaukee.

During the campaign, McDonnell (R), a close ally of TV preacher Pat Robertson and graduate of Robertson’s Regent University, talked mostly about reforming Virginia’s charter school law. But observers say the appointment of a high-profile voucher advocate such as Robinson is a good sign that some type of tussle over more problematic versions of “school choice” will erupt.

One private school aid bill has already been put forward in Virginia. SB 133, introduced by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), would allocate tax credits to businesses that donate to non-profit groups that provide vouchers – an increasingly popular “neo-voucher” scheme that has surfaced in several states this year.

The rumblings in New Jersey and Virginia indicate that the battle over government aid to religious education, which has been rather dormant for the past few years, may be about to erupt again.

Americans United’s Legislative Department is monitoring developments related to religious school tax aid proposals in New Jersey, Virginia and several other states.

Recent activities include:

California: California faces a possible non-legislative voucher push. William E. Oberndorf, chairman of the board of directors for the Alliance for School Choice, is seeking to collect signatures to put a voucher question on the ballot this year.

Oberndorf’s proposal would require the state to set up a voucher plan aimed at foster children. The tactics echo a common ploy among voucher boosters these days: target aid toward a population that is perceived sympathetically by the general public. Advocates hope that once vouchers are secured for one class of students, the plan can be expanded to others.

To win a spot on the ballot, Oberndorf and his backers must collect nearly 700,000 valid signatures by June 14. Even if he succeeds, Oberndorf may have a tough time selling the idea to Californians. Golden State voters rejected voucher plans at the ballot box in 1982, 1993 and 2000 – each time by wide margins.

Georgia: Supporters of public education say they expect to see the reintroduction of a voucher bill that failed in the legislature last year. The measure was introduced by Eric Johnson, a member of the state Senate who has since resigned to focus on running for governor.

Officials with the Georgia Association of Educators say it’s likely that other legislators will resurrect the Johnson proposal. The bill introduced in 2009 would have covered every student in the state, offering vouchers worth $5,000. It passed the Georgia Education Committee in February of 2009 but never came up for a floor vote.

Indiana: In an effort to be proactive, members of the Indiana State Teachers Association are pushing proposed legislation to eliminate a private school tax credit that many consider a backdoor voucher.

SB 181 is part of a package of reforms designed to deal with budgetary problems in the state. The bill’s fate is uncertain. An official with the Indiana Department of Education defended the tax credit program, telling the Indianapolis Star it should be saved.

Missouri: A bill is pending in the state Senate that would create a voucher plan aimed at “special needs” students. SB 654, introduced by Sen. Jason Crowell (R-Cape Girardeau), would allow taxpayers to claim an 80 percent credit against money donated to private groups that provide vouchers for students with physical and mental handicaps.

Nevada: Gov. Jim Gibbons has unveiled an education “reform” package that includes vouchers. Gibbons, a Republican who faces reelection this year, released the plan in January. Details were sketchy, but a document issued by Gibbons’ office calls for adopting a “statewide school voucher program for all parents and students to exercise school choice, and authorizing local school districts, boards of charter schools, and private schools to set enrollment caps at the school level to prevent overcrowding.”

New York: Assemblyman Michael Benjamin (D-Bronx) has introduced an amendment to repeal the state constitution’s ban on public funding of religious institutions (A02970). Benjamin is also pushing legislation that would create a voucher plan for students with disabilities (A03259). Five other bills in New York would create tuition tax credit programs.

Oklahoma: Two state senators — Judy Eason McIntyre (D-Tulsa) and John Ford (R-Bartlesville) — have introduced SB 882, legislation that would give taxpayers credits for money they donate to private groups that distribute vouchers.

Tennessee: Two members of the state legislature say they are preparing a bill that will create a pilot voucher program in the state. Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) and Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) say under their proposal, vouchers would go to students attending three schools deemed “under performing” in Memphis, reported the Nashville Tennessean.

The Tennessee Education Association has vowed to strongly oppose the measure.

In addition, Kelsey has already introduced a freestanding voucher bill, HB 599, that would establish a statewide voucher plan aimed at low-income families, and a member of the House of Representatives has introduced a bill that would give tax credits to people who donate to private groups that provide private school tuition to students (HB 2525).

Wisconsin: Milwaukee is home to the nation’s oldest voucher scheme, and there have been constant efforts to expand it to other parts of the state. The city’s new Roman Catholic archbishop, Jerome Listecki, joined that chorus in January, even opining that the program should go nationwide.

It’s unclear if Wisconsin lawmakers will respond favorably. The Milwaukee plan has been plagued with fly-by-night private schools, and independent evaluations have shown that the participating students perform no better academically than their public school counterparts.

In addition, AU’s Legislative Department is tracking other threats to church-state separation in state legislatures. These include:

 

Religion in Public Schools

Florida: Sen. Stephen R. Wise (R-Jacksonville) has proposed legislation that will authorize public schools to permit a student volunteer to deliver “an inspirational message, including a prayer or an invocation” at school-sponsored activities such as sporting events if a majority votes to request it. (SB 1580).

Kentucky: A resolution has been introduced in the House of Representatives declaring that the legislature “declares its full support for students’ voluntary expression of religious viewpoints” and asserting, “The House of Representatives hereby advocates that students expressing religious viewpoints be given the same opportunity as students expressing nonreligious viewpoints to deliver remarks during school-sanctioned functions, including but not limited to graduation ceremonies, athletic events, opening announcements and school day greetings, assemblies, and pep rallies.” (HR 40)

Missouri: Legislators are deliberating a proposed amendment to the state constitution that purports to protect “religious speech” in public schools and other government contexts. Opponents say SJR 31 would open the door to government sponsorship of religion.

In January, Cynthia Holmes, an activist with AU’s St. Louis Chapter, testified against the proposal before the General Laws Committee of the Missouri Senate.

In addition, Rep. Robert Wayne Cooper, who has repeatedly introduced anti-evolution measures, is trying again. Cooper is a Republican who represents parts of Camden, Miller and Morgan counties, and his bill (HB 1651) states in part that “teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.”

Mississippi: A new anti-evolution tactic has surfaced in Mississippi: Proposed legislation would require local school boards to include a lesson on human evolution at the beginning of their high school biology classes – with the proviso that the lesson “shall have proportionately equal instruction from educational materials that present scientifically sound arguments by protagonists and antagonists of the theory of evolution.” HB 586 is sponsored by Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus), who has previously introduced measures to undermine the teaching of evolution.

In addition, a separate bill, HB 279, the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act,” would require public schools in the state to adopt policies allowing students to include religious content in homework and engage in religious speech during sporting events, graduation and other public events. Another bill, SB 2007, would require schools to provide a moment of “quiet reflection” at the beginning of each school day. A third measure, SB 2348, would authorize schools to provide elective courses for academic study of the Bible.

Oklahoma: HB 2321 would require the state board of education to adopt standards for “an elective course or courses that may be offered to students in the public schools of this state consisting of a nonsectarian, nonreligious academic study of the Bible and its influence on literature, art, music, culture and politics.”

A separate piece of legislation, HB 2814, would require students in Oklahoma public schools to study various historic documents that contain religious content.


Government Endorsement of Religion

Arizona: Sen. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) and three members of the state House of Representatives have introduced a one-sentence bill (SB 1213) that reads, “On or before January 1, 2011, the legislative council shall place a copy of the Ten Commandments on the front entrance to the original 1898 State Capitol Building.”

Kentucky: The state Senate has rejected a wide-ranging “21st-Century Bill of Rights” amendment to the state constitution, portions of which would have affected church-state relations. The grab bag proposal (SB 3) would have reiterated the right to own firearms, stated that no Kentucky resident could be forced to participate in health insurance plans and fostered the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places.

New Hampshire: A lengthy resolution reflecting “Christian nation” propaganda (HCR 26) would put the legislature on record as “reaffirming the state’s religious heritage and constitutional rights to practice religion and free speech.” The measure has five cosponsors.

Virginia: HB 9, introduced by Del. Charles W. Carrico (R-Galax), gives the State Police the authority to “establish a Volunteer Chaplaincy Program, enabling employees of the Department otherwise trained in ministry to serve as volunteer chaplains, without supplemental compensation.” It stipulates, “Neither the Department, the Superintendent, or any other Department official, shall prescribe, proscribe, regulate, limit, or otherwise dictate the religious content of the volunteer chaplains’ expressions of religious beliefs, prayers, invocations, benedictions, spiritual counseling, or spiritual guidance.”

The bill is a reaction to a 2008 incident during which six volunteer chaplains resigned rather than abide by new regulations issued by the state police superintendent requiring non-sectarian prayers at public events. Carrico unsuccessfully promoted similar legislation last year.

Washington: Three members of the House of Representatives have introduced a “memorial” that would put the state on record as requesting that federal officials do all they can to “ensure that the words ‘under God’ remain in the Pledge of Allegiance.” (HJM 4006)

West Virginia: Eleven members of the state House of Representatives have introduced a bill (HB 2945) urging local communities to “prominently display on such property or building, the American national motto, ‘In God We Trust.’”

In addition, six states – Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington – are considering legislation to create “In God We Trust” license plates.

* * *

Americans United State Legislative Counsel Dena Sher cautioned that this list is by no means exhaustive. More problematic legislation is expected as the year moves forward.

In 2009, AU tracked hundreds of bills in state legislatures, covering everything from school vouchers and private school tax credits to school prayer and creationism. Many of those proposals may be reintroduced this year.

Sher reminded AU members that they can sign up to receive e-mail alerts about the legislation AU is monitoring with suggestions on how to take action. AU activists can use the system to send messages to lawmakers in support or opposition to legislation. In some cases, AU chapter activists have even testified against bills before state legislative panels. (To sign up for alerts, go to www.au.org and click on “Take Action” and then “Email Alerts.”)

“AU relies on its members to respond quickly when proposals that threaten church-state separation appear in state legislatures,” Sher said. “I urge all members to stay informed and get involved.”