Religious Freedom and Educational Choice
Christopher J. Armstrong
reasons that defy understanding, opponents of school voucher programs
have resurrected a thoroughly defeated argument — namely, that the
use of public funds for tuition at religious schools is unconstitutional.
National Education Association, the largest and most influential
teachers union in the District of Columbia, claims that school vouchers
are a “means of circumventing the [c]onstitutional prohibitions
against subsidizing religious practice and instruction” in its public
campaign to stop a proposed voucher program for our nation’s capital.
First Amendment to the United States Constitution has been interpreted
to prohibit governments from enacting laws that have the “purpose”
or “effect” of advancing or inhibiting religion. Many who oppose
school vouchers claim that public funds being used to pay tuition
at private religious schools would give the impression that government
is supporting or even promoting religion. Yet the same argument
would suggest that students couldn’t use Pell Grants to attend the
University of Notre Dame or that it is unconstitutional for patients
to use Medicare funds at a Catholic hospital.
the arguments put forward by the NEA run counter to recent Supreme
Court precedent in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upheld
a school voucher plan in Cleveland, Ohio, that has helped to rescue
inner-city children from the grips of a failing public school system.
Zelman, the Supreme Court noted the important difference
between government funding religion and government funding
choice. “[O]ur decisions have drawn a consistent distinction
between government programs that provide aid directly to religious
schools, and programs of true private choice, in which government
aid reaches religious schools only as a result of the genuine and
independent choices of private individuals,” the Court ruled.
the point, the Court reaffirmed the established rule that “‘[i]f
numerous private choices, rather than the single choice of a government,
determine the distribution of aid, pursuant to neutral eligibility
criteria, then a government cannot, or at least cannot easily, grant
special favors that might lead to a religious establishment.’”
by their loss in Zelman, large teachers unions and liberal
special interest groups continue to rail against the best hope for
many of our nations most disadvantaged youth — school voucher programs
that give students and parents a choice.
of this viewpoint is Chris Link of the ACLU, who has claimed: “[W]e
cannot rescue troubled public schools by providing a way for students
to abandon public schools.”
misses the point. Vouchers cannot “rescue” the public schools,
nor should they. But they can rescue children. They can rescue
students from the most violent, the worst performing and the least
academically challenging schools in the country. They can breathe
new hope into countless students who are caught in the endless cycle
of failure caused by the public monopoly of education in our inner
short, vouchers don’t establish religion, they establish a choice.
J. Armstrong is a law student at the Catholic University of America
Columbus School of Law and is interning at the Center for Individual
Freedom this summer.
August 1, 2003]
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