DC Voucher Program is Unconstitutional September 30, 2009

DC Voucher Program is Unconstitutional

When the details and effects of the DC Voucher Program are examined, there should be no question that should be considered an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.  I’m not addressing the program’s efficacy or effect on public schools – others can debate that – but regardless, it is an affront to religious liberty and the nonreligious community.

Since commenters seem skeptical, I’ll explain, laying out the case I used in my debate last night.

Nobody should be taxed to pay for another person’s religious training, nor should the government encourage certain religious practices over others.

In a 5-4 decision in Zelman v. Simmons Harris, the Supreme Court narrowly found the particular voucher program in Ohio to be constitutional.  But it did so specially mentioning the importance of requirements and provisions in the Ohio program – provisions that are absent in the DC program.

The first difference is a familiar problem.  Unlike the Ohio voucher program, which prohibits participating schools from discriminating, the DC program has a specific exemption for religious schools participating in the vouchers.  They are allowed to discriminate in their hiring on the basis of religion, meaning that teachers’ access to federal money is affected by their religious affiliation.  This should sound familiar – it’s the biggest ongoing controversy with the Faith-Based Initiative program.

“Current voucher policies… essentially push students into Christian Association and Catholic schools, pricing out independent (non-religious) schools and Hebrew Schools”

Another key difference is that, unlike the Ohio Voucher program, the DC Voucher Program gives parents incentives to choose religious schools. In Zelman, the Supreme Court wrote that such programs could not have “financial incentives that skew the program towards religious schools.”  They found that the Ohio program accomplished this by requiring a copay and capping the cost. In their program, private secular and private religious schools would cost the same for these students, and each would cost more than the public, non-sectarian schools.

DC Vouchers are different.  There’s no copay, and the government will give a set maximum of $7,500.  That’s conveniently enough to cover the whole tuition for most private religious schools – but not private secular schools.  A Rutgers study that came out in July 2009 found that the average cost of religious schools was about $7,700 per child.  The cost for secular schools was twice as high.  They concluded that the difference has

“clear implications for voucher programs, since current voucher policies are funded at amounts that cover costs at only a select subset of private schools. They essentially push students into Christian Association and Catholic schools, pricing out independent (non-religious) schools and Hebrew schools.”

The program is focused on low-income families in bad neighborhoods.  Offering $7,500 towards private school doesn’t mean the parents can choose any school they want – it means parents can choose any religious school they want.  They can’t afford to pay the additional seven or eight thousand dollars.

It is fundamental to the separation of church and state that government should never encourage or endorse certain religious practices over others. And the DC Voucher Program does just that, encouraging parents to send their children to religious schools and receive religious educations.

We might hope that the money would only be going toward a secular education.  But many religious schools receiving money through the program don’t even make an effort to separate out their sectarian religious teachings.

For example, the Ambassador Baptist Church Christian School (quite a name, huh?) website states that its “primary mission and goal is to train the students in the knowledge of God and the Christian way of Life and to provide them with an excellent educational experience…. God’s truth is infused throughout the curriculum and is reinforced in chapel each week.”

Now, I heard testimony in the Senate Office Building yesterday that the Ambassador Baptist Church Christian School is no longer getting voucher money. Could it be because they were using my tax money to promote religion and indoctrinate children?  No, the school had financial problems. I don’t know the details of their financial problems, but apparently the program had no problem with over 50 students receiving federal money to be “trained in the knowledge of God and the Christian way of Life.”

It’s not an isolated case. New Macedonia Christian Academy boasts about delivering “a high quality Christian education to our students while instilling a strong Christ-centered academic foundation.”  The Dupont Park School encourages “each student to develop a personal relationship with God” and strives to “prepar[e] students for the service of God’s Church, Country, Community and above all for Eternity.”

The program has no problem with over 50 students receiving federal money to be “trained in the knowledge of God and the Christian way of Life.”

What is this if not religious instruction?  As the Supreme Court said in Everson vs. Board of Education,“No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt, to teach or practice religion.”

Now, that outrages me as a taxpayer. But it’s also children who are being harmed.  Unlike the Wisconsin Voucher program, the DC program has no required “opt-out” option for students who wish not to participate in the religious activities. Students are priced into religious schools where they have no guarantee that they won’t be proselytized.

And it’s happening.  The 2008 US Department of Education Report found that, when students leaving the program were asked why they left, 8% said that “religious activities at the private school make the child uncomfortable”. I find that number to be remarkable, and it doesn’t tell us how many children are put into uncomfortable religious situations but don’t leave the program.

Nonreligious Americans are a growing population, and the American Religious Identification Survey report that came out this month found that 18% of DC residents are not affiliated with a religion. How are they supposed to participate in the DC Voucher program? The way pricing is arranged, they can only afford to choose religious schools, but what if they don’t want to be surrounded by a religious climate and receive a ‘christ-centered’ education?

We need to end this program. It misuses taxpayer dollars on religious education and discrimination, it encourages certain religious practices over others, and it puts parents and students into uncomfortable positions of choosing between their wallet and their freedom of conscience.

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  • Mouse

    At one point I taught in a private DC school that decided it would not take vouchers. They figured that they already had a pretty generous scholarship program in place and accepting vouchers brought a whole host of onerous requirements for testing and the like. And I know that most of the non-secular, successful private schools came to the same decision. It always seemed like the program was engineered toward the Catholic schools in the area.

  • Curtis

    Averages can be misleading. A few ridiculously expensive schools can skew the result. The real question is “How many secular and religious schools are available for less than $8000?” Even if there are few affordable secular schools now, this voucher program would eventually lead to cheaper secular schools which would be a big plus.

    Having said that, the voucher program is unconstitutional. But if I live there, I would support it. I would send my kids to a religious school before most DC public schools.

  • This is a choice a friend of mine is having. She and her husband are atheists, but the local public schools aren’t just bad, they’re actively dangerous.

    So, she pays to send her child to a religious school. So far, she’s had her 7 year old tell her she’s going to hell, and her 5 year old literally hysterical over the fact that reading the bible is the only thing that keeps you safe from Satan, and she can’t read.

  • ihedenius

    Why are secular schools more expensive ?
    There’s no obvious reason why they should be (to me anyway) assuming largely the same curriculum.

  • Erp

    A few reasons

    1. Teachers in Catholic schools may be in religious orders and not expecting very much at all in pay (this is less true now that fewer people are joining religious orders).

    2. Religious schools may be subsidized by donations to the church.

    3. Some secular schools are specifically Ivy League (or equivalent) prep with good libraries, teachers with PhDs, good science labs, etc.

  • Miko

    Public education run at the federal level is unconstitutional, period. No one really pays attention to the Constitution these days except to the extent that they can twist it to say what they want.

  • llewelly

    Public education run at the federal level is unconstitutional, period.

    Citation, please?

  • dddave

    Hmmm… That’s not at all an argument for un-constitutionality. After all, you could take your tax rebate and spend it to promote religion. Government giving people money and having them use it in the manner they please is constitutional, even if it happens to promote religion.

    That being said, the DC public school system is an absolute cesspool. There is terrible violence and the educational results are abysmal. I’m an atheist, but if we can save money and some kids can get a real education, let them pick their schools, public or private.

  • ckitching

    dddave: The US courts have generally required that US government contractors abide by the same rules as the government itself has to abide by. That means you don’t get to avoid non-discrimination/free speech/etc clauses by outsourcing the job to the private sector. If this was not the case, it would be very trivial to circumvent these constitutional requirements.

  • Autumnal Harvest


    Public education run at the federal level is unconstitutional, period.


    Citation, please?

    I can provide a citation against that claim:

    The Congress shall have Power To . . . exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District. . .[as may] become the Seat of the Government of the United States. . . (U.S constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 17, emphasis added)

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I agree with ddave, I don’t see a valid argument for unconstitutionality. The government is giving vouchers to parents, and the parents are deciding what to do with them. All private schools have an equal opportunity to take the vouchers. If some secular private schools price themselves so high that they don’t get many vouchers, that’s their business, that’s not the government’s fault. By the logic here, if a bus line turns out to be heavily used by people to go to church, the government is unconstitutionally supporting church attendance.

    ckitching, government contractors are people hired by the government to perform specific tasks. We don’t all become government contractors simply by participating in government programs or accepting government funds.

  • Rieux

    dddave and Autumnal, you do realize that you’re arguing for the total deletion of the Establishment Clause from the Bill of Rights, don’t you?

    If the government can ship unlimited tax dollars to religious bodies merely by creating a legal fiction called a “voucher,” there is no boundary whatsoever to a total theocracy. The federal government can simply outsource all services to churches, who can then be as discriminatory, evangelistic, or generally disgusting toward religious minorities as they’d like, in their administration of Social Security, Medicare, the lower federal courts, the IRS, and all of the other operations of the federal government. And you guys have declared that there can be no constitutional problem with that, because oooh, vouchers! (Thankfully, the Supreme Court, though it is anything but consistent in taking religious minorities’ rights seriously, is not nearly as far gone as you two–as the original post explained, and you ignored.)

    The Bill of Rights is intended to protect minorities, not to encourage powerful majorities to concoct silly shell games so that they’re allowed to trample on us.

    Atheists supporting voucher programs designed to ship tax money to religious schools are a lot like GLBT folks campaigning for Fred Phelps for President. Please look before you leap–and throw us all into a real “Christian Nation” that your Constitutional interpretation leads directly into.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Wow, Rieux that rant was remarkably unreponsive and irrelevant to what ddave and I argued.

  • Kaylya

    It seems to me that just because a school might say that tuition is, lets say, $15,000 doesn’t mean that everyone there pays $15,000. In the absence of vouchers, many such schools do have scholarships and such to allow people who can’t afford the regular tuition to attend. Of course, such scholarships might only be extended to students meeting high academic (or athletic, or artistic) standards.

    And of course, as someone has pointed out, just because the average tuition is more like $15,000 doesn’t mean that there aren’t schools that are lower cost. Then again, $7500 really isn’t that much for a private school, and it sounds like the families these grants are going to aren’t intended to be the families who could easily top up the voucher with a couple thousand dollars extra to attend a below average costing secular school at say $10,000.

    In terms of effectiveness – I saw people citing the performance of the students vs. the general population as being a lot better, but what you really need to do is look at the students in the program vs. the students who applied for the program but didn’t get selected (ideally if selection was done via a lottery). From what I’ve seen, having parents who care enough to seek out these sort of “school choice” opportunities is far more influential on performance than the choice itself.

  • Rieux

    Wow, Rieux that rant was remarkably unreponsive and irrelevant to what ddave and I argued.

    Then it appears you need to look up the words “unresponsive” and “irrelevant” in the dictionary.

    I specifically pointed out that the vouchers-cleanse-everything argument you posted would allow the federal government to transfer every single government service into discriminatory church hands. And it would. (States, too.) Your argument licenses total theocracy.

    I also pointed out that you entirely ignored the Supreme Court precedent–you know, the material that establishes what is and is not the official interpretation of the U.S. Constitution–Jesse cited. It’s your airy “I don’t see a valid argument for unconstitutionality,” with no attention whatsoever paid to the precedent analyzed in the original post, that’s unresponsive.

    Finally, I pointed out how ugly it is to see (a) self-declared atheist(s) supporting voucher systems that enable flat-out unquestioned rule by churches. You may not like the direct implications of your Constitutional argument, but that hardly makes those implications “unresponsive” or “irrelevant,” of all things.

    Stop supporting theocracy.

  • darrien

    how is this unconstitutional?, i am trying to find every thing i can on this topic article 1, section 8, clause 17 doe snot state any thing on this it is about the military?… what article does it apose the government joining with schools and religion

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