Sunday, January 27th, marked the beginning of School Choice Week, the annual effort by right-wing and religious groups to undermine the public school system by promoting “choice” in the form of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. They talk about charter schools and other “educational choices” as well, but that’s mostly for camouflage; the main thrust of their arguments is about public money for private, mainly religious, schools. They’ve got a good following too; especially among people who don’t understand what separation of church and state is all about, or why it’s important for their religious freedom as well as everyone else’s.
A case in point is illustrated by this letter to the editor that appeared in the Chicago Tribune:
If it’s not a violation of church and state separation for a government employee to use their government insurance when they go to a Catholic or other denomination’s hospital, why is it a violation if they attend a Catholic or other denomination’s school with the government’s funding?
Catholic school teachers do twice the work for half the pay that public school teachers receive. Vouchers, or subtracting tuition payments from one’s income pre-income tax, would still save the state lots of money without violating any amendments.
Whether JB’s own school was public or private, something they apparently didn’t teach him were the rules of logic. The first paragraph contains a false comparison and the second, an assumed conclusion based on that false comparison, as well as unsupported, not to mention irrelevant, assertions about Catholic school teachers. I couldn’t resist writing an answer to him.
Here it is as it appeared (more or less) in the Chicago Tribune:
You’re comparing apples and oranges here. I don’t know the various local/state/federal insurance plans, but provided it’s one that allows you to choose your own health provider, then there’s no 1st amendment conflict because it isn’t the gov’t supporting a religious institution; it’s you. The same is true if some religion is what you choose to spend your gov’t paycheck on. That’s because constitutional rights like freedom of conscience are the sole property of individuals, not institutions like churches or the gov’t. Yet, when the gov’t supports a church by providing you with vouchers, it IS taking that freedom of choice away from others by sponsoring that church with everyone’s tax dollars whether they want to support that church or another or none.
State-supported religion is one of the things the Americans rebelled against in the first place and the founding fathers wisely decided that the only way to be fair to every religious viewpoint was to keep neutral on all of them. The level playing field thus provided has proved a boon to everyone by ensuring fair competition for worshipers to all of them. You have only to look in the pages of your local phone directory to see the results. The US has a quantity and diversity of religious denominations like almost no other country in the world. That’s the freedom separation of church and state has given us. For your own sake as well as mine, don’t mess with it.
At this point, someone else joined the conversation with a couple of questions of her own:
But, if you had true freedom to pick where you wanted your child to get an education, then vouchers given to the parent of each child eligible for education (and aren’t we all guaranteed that?) would be spent where the parent’s conscience told them to spend it. Direct support is not being given to a particular school but to an individual who then makes the choice. You are free to select a public school if you want. That is freedom of choice.
What are your thoughts about “charitable” deductions given for supporting churches? Isn’t this an example of subsidy? Since most church giving goes to administrative costs versus doing what most people consider “charity”, should these deductions be only partially eligible?
Which I replied to:
Barb, I support your child’s public education with my tax dollars. That I do not object to because an educated electorate is a necessity in a democracy. I do object to having my tax dollars used to support his or her religious indoctrination as well. I see no real public benefit to having gov’t promote religion over nonreligion or vice versa, but I do see plenty of problems with it. Nothing brings people together for factional fighting better than religion… except religion reinforced by gov’t.
As to your second question about charitable deductions, I think part of the confusion is with calling them that. While I’m no lawyer, I think that, for tax purposes, it’s more accurate to call them non-profits. You don’t have to be a charity to qualify for 501(c)(3) non-profit status and all donations to you become tax-deductable. Even the coin club I used to belong to (certainly no charity) had 501(c)(3) status. All, including religious ones, are treated more or less the same (I think).
Some of the misunderstanding of what the constitutional separation of church and state is all about is due to ignorance. Hey, I can’t even swear that everything I wrote was 100% accurate since I was writing off the cuff, but after researching and writing about it so often, I’m pretty sure it’s a lot closer than what many of the religious believe. However, not all of the misunderstanding is due to ignorance. It’s very human to let bias affect your reasoning; especially if you’ve never been taught how to reason.
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