The U.S. Department of Education has just released some interesting statistics about private education in America.
Nearly half of all private school students in the United States are attending Roman Catholic schools. Thirty-six percent attend "other religious" schools, the largest chunk of those being "conservative Christian" academies. Non-sectarian institutions account for just under 16 percent of private school enrollment.
Why are these statistics relevant? Recently the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear a case testing the constitutionality of Cleveland's voucher program. The Cleveland plan is a telling microcosm of what could happen nationally if vouchers are upheld.
On paper, Cleveland's program is open to all private schools and even suburban public schools. The reality is something else: No suburban public schools are taking part, and few non-religious private schools have expressed interested. As a result, 96 percent of the students participating in the scheme are attending religious schools at taxpayer expense.
There are many reasons to oppose vouchers. The Washington Post recently ran a column about a Muslim school in Northern Virginia whose leaders have close ties to the government of Iran and seem to believe that Osama bin Laden may not be such a bad guy after all. Do Americans really want to give tax dollars to such an institution?
There are other reasons. Vouchers drain money away from public schools, there is no solid evidence that they boost student achievement and they threaten to balkanize children along religious lines.
These are all compelling objections, but at a time like this, with so much at stake, it is necessary to return to core principles: Vouchers must be rejected because they violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
The First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to choose which religion, if any, they want to support. Properly interpreted, it bars taxation for religion and anything like it.
History tells us why. More than 200 years ago, in colonial America, people grew angry because they were forced to support religious groups against their will. Leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took up their cause and helped put a stop to mandatory support for religion.
If Americans cannot be forced to support churches, it stands to reason that they cannot be forced to support church schools. Yet that is exactly what voucher programs do. Voucher supporters talk about "scholarships" and "choice," but their rhetoric cannot disguise what these plans are about: transferring tax money from the treasury to private religious schools that pursue private religious agendas.
How did we get to this deplorable stage where the Supreme Court may be on the verge of approving direct tax aid to religious schools? It stems largely from the 1980s, when Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush stacked the court with ideologues opposed to church-state separation.
Admittedly, Bush did make one mistake: He nominated David Souter, who turned out to be a strong defender of church-state separation. Bush made sure that didn't happen again. His next appointment was Clarence Thomas, who quickly joined Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (a Nixon appointee who in 1985 called the wall of separation "a metaphor based on bad history" that should be "frankly and explicitly abandoned") in declaring all-out war on the protective barrier between religion and government. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy often votes with this bloc on funding cases.
The high court still contains three strong separationists Justices Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens. This means Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer are the swing voters who will decide this case.
One can only hope that O'Connor and Breyer bone up on some history before this case is decided. A good place to start would be Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," perhaps the most powerful argument against tax-supported religion ever penned.
From there, they should read the Danbury Baptists' letter to Jefferson in 1801 and Jefferson's eloquent reply of Jan. 1, 1802. Jefferson's response, with its famous "wall of separation" metaphor, is well known; what's less understood is why the Baptists wrote to him in the first place. They were being forced to pay taxes to support an established Congregationalist Church they didn't believe in, and they were tired of it.
At that time, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government. The Connecticut Baptists knew of Jefferson's strong stand for religious liberty and hoped he would champion their cause and agree that states should also separate religion and government. Jefferson's approach eventually carried the day. Taxpayer-supported religion at the state level withered away.
Incredibly, 200 years later we face that specter again. Have we learned nothing from our own history?
The Supreme Court faces a clear choice: It could do a real service to America by driving the final, definitive stake through the "voucher vampire" once and for all, or it could give this dangerous creature free reign to stalk our land (and wallets).
The first course would affirm the lesson of history and banish the noxious notion of church taxes. The latter will threaten public education, spawn inter-faith disharmony, violate the rights of conscience of millions of people and make a mockery of our nation's heritage of religious freedom.
We can only hope the justices will have the wisdom to do the right thing.