The Supreme Court’s ruling that it does not violate the First Amendment for parents to use school vouchers to send children to religious schools has set off a firestorm of debate over the establishment clause of the Constitution. For a society that is so overwhelmingly religious, as much now as ever before in American history, we seem to have grave difficulties reaching a balanced view of the relationship between faith and public life.
Those who would immediately dismiss this decision need to think again. In the voucher case, the Court points out that when the state grants a voucher to a child to attend school, the state is directing money to the child, not a religious institution as such. There are numerous uses for the voucher. The child can stay in public school. The parents may decide to send the child to a nonsectarian private school. Or the parents can select from a huge range of religious schools.
Wherever the money ends up, the Court majority argued, it is the parents and the child who make the decision, not the state. In no sense can it be said that the state is displaying favoritism toward any particular religion or even to religion in general. The argument is so obviously correct, one wonders why there was such controversy over it. But of course, we know why: Powerful interest groups, heavily invested in the existing educational structure, are anxious to stop voucher-related educational reforms.
This is where the Supreme Court’s voucher decision points the way to resolution. In letting parents make choices concerning the faith content of their child’s education, the problem of how and when to pray or acknowledge God falls to the parents and the schools themselves. The state does not have to be involved in any way, and so the conflict and acrimony that have accompanied the relationship between education and religion both vanish.
What needs to change here is the notion that schools are essentially governmental utilities in need of regulation, rather than fundamental institutions of civil society. While government needs to be neutral toward religion, citizens need not be. In allowing parents to choose a school—any school, religious or otherwise—the Supreme Court has recognized the reality that in civil society, the first consideration of most parents is not an abstract deliberation of church and state, but something far more pragmatic: Where can I get the best education for my child?
Parents who choose to send their children to religious schools have been penalized for doing so by having to pay twice for their child’s education: once in the form of school taxes and a second time in the tuition they pay to the religious schools themselves.
American culture is, and always has been, de facto, a religious culture. The entire concept of our laws and institutions emerged from religious reflection, and the vast majority of Americans claim that they believe in God. An integral part of society is the fact that this faith moves people to make choices.
It may well be the case that school vouchers are not the best possible way to solve this dilemma, especially if they open the doors to governmental regulation of religious schools. But it strikes me as at least a step in the right direction—toward an educational system that makes no law respecting an establishment of religion, but also does not prohibit the free exercise thereof.
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