Pennsylvania State Senator Tells Atheists to Send Their Kids to ‘An Atheist School’ with School Vouchers November 17, 2011

Pennsylvania State Senator Tells Atheists to Send Their Kids to ‘An Atheist School’ with School Vouchers

***Update***: There’s better video and more excerpts at Justin’s blog.

There’s one main reason church/state separation advocates don’t support school vouchers: It would allow parents to send their kids to religious schools on the taxpayer dime. (Want a second reason? The private schools also wouldn’t be held to the same accountability standards as the public schools.)

In Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Justin Vacula and several other atheists attended a rally in the state capitol building in support of school choice so they could voice their dissent. (***Edit***: The protest was “sponsored” by American Atheists.) Justin held up a sign reading, “Separate Church and State” and Ernest Perce V videotaped part of the rally.

Check out what State Senator Anthony Williams had to say:

… You send your kids to whatever school you want to send your kids to. By the way, you have a right to do that, be it an atheist school or not. Guess what? I got a right to send my kids to the school I want to send them to!

He’s wrong, of course. Separation of church and state means that tax money cannot be used to fund one particular faith (or an “atheist school,” whatever that is) over another.

Later on, Williams tells the dissenters: “By the way, this is MY rally, not yours. Have one for you and bring all your children and you can rally, too.” He says that at a rally taking place in the Capitol Building…

It’s amazing how dumb people can get when they think someone’s attacking their faith. All reason flies out the window.

Not that they really care, but the Senate bill in support of vouchers violates the Pennsylvania Constitution:

The Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits the parts of Senate Bill 1 that would result in state funding being used for tuition at private religious schools. During the original debate over adopting these constitutional provisions, legislators specifically favored a strict prohibition against any use of public funds at religious institutions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld this strict prohibition, outlawing state payments to religiously-affiliated hospitals. The Court has allowed state funding for bus transportation to sectarian schools by finding that the public funds did not actually “reach the coffers” of those schools. But vouchers in SB 1 are specifically designed to “reach the coffers” of religious and other private schools. This violates the Pennsylvania Constitution, regardless of whether the state funding first goes through the hands of individual families before “reaching the coffers” of the religious schools.

Justin has plenty more about his experience at the rally here and it’s definitely worth a read.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Andrew Morgan

    You can’t support a separation of church and state and school choice at the same time?  What?

  • FYI, the state capitol of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg where the state capitol building is also located!  (“In Philadelphia, Justin Vacula and several other atheists…”)

  • Anonymous

    Not sure I agree that this violates the Pennsylvania state constitution.  While the state constitution states that “no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent,” I honestly don’t think that a school voucher program, in which money may flow to either secular or sectarian schools, will run afoul of state constitutional prohibitions.

    I can see an argument against the program under the third prong of Lemon v. Kurtzman, but I don’t think there is enough entanglement to render the program unconstitutional.

  • Garren openID

    I’m an atheist who believes vouchers are a better way to promote the First Amendment than the government discriminating against religious content for schools which otherwise meet educational standards.

  • Miko

    There’s one main reason church/state separation advocates don’t support school vouchers: It would allow parents to send their kids to religious schools on the taxpayer dime. (Want a second reason? The private schools also wouldn’t be held to the same accountability standards as the public schools.)

    Speak for yourself.  I’m a church/state separation advocate who disagrees with every bit of this.  Private schools (and especially religious ones) usually cost less than public schools, so the voucher is actually saving taxpayers money.  Also, the standards of the public schools are atrocious, so for the sake of education I would hope that as many children as possible could go to schools that weren’t being dragged down by the accountability standards of the public schools.

  • Chad Casarotto

    Shouldn’t public schools be essentially the same as an “athiest school” would be?

  • Anonymous

    Exactly. But these are the same people who would love to see mandatory prayer, advertisements and religious education in public schools

    Though strictly speaking, public schools should be religiously neutral and secular, as opposed to outright atheistic. There is some value in comparative religion classes for example

  • Garren openID

    Public schools are meant to be secular, whereas the “atheist school” remark was probably intended to refer to a school which comes out positively against Theistic beliefs or positively promotes naturalism.

    Public schools can’t do that, but a private school could. 

  • An athEIst school would discuss religion in a way that a public school is supposed to steer clear of.

  • The Captain

    Wait, so what part of the voucher system then does not use taxpayer money to support a religious school???? Please explain that economic magic.

  • Even if those schools stress faith over reason?

  • The Captain

    Actually I’m against buzz worded ideas like “school choice” because what those buzz words really mean is a tiered educational system for children based on the wealth of the parents of those children. 

  • Anonymous

    That’s just silly as very little time should be spent teaching for or against religious dogmas.

  • Then don’t permit vouchers for religious schools.

  • Forcing religious dogma on children meets which educational standards?

  • Anonymous

    Christians don’t make such distinctions. To him any school that isn’t explicitly religious is atheistic

  • Gus Snarp

    This. A thousand times.

  • Garren openID

    A private school can meet state educational standards and then — in addition to that — preach religion. Or irreligion for that matter.

  • 59 Norris

    Would you still oppose it even if they didn’t?

  • Garren openID

    Some do; some don’t.

    It sure doesn’t help that groups like the Secular Student Alliance make secularism and atheism out to be the same thing.

  • “Preaching” (i.e. enforcing) religion should not be supported by taxpayers.

    “In addition to that–preach religion”?  Religion permeates the whole school day.

    Irreligion shouldn’t be “preached” either.

  • Austin

    I support vouchers as long as the schools meet educational and secular criteria. 

  • Little Lucy’s voucher school report card:

                                             Bible  A
                                   Catechism  A
                                  Daily Mass  A
                                       Reading  A
                                             Math  A                                                           

    Remarks – – ” Your daughter is doing very well.
                                She keeps her mouth shut and 
                                ‘learns what she’s told’.”

  • No.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    … You send your kids to whatever school you want to send your kids to. By the way, you have a right to do that, be it an atheist school or not. Guess what? I got a right to send my kids to the school I want to send them to!
    He’s wrong, of course.

    He’s right that he can send his kids to whatever school he prefers. It’s only the small detail of getting the government to pay for it that is controversial.

  • For those who have no problem with vouchers, it’s important to be aware of the kinds of things taught in religious schools:

  • Annie

    But taking away money from public schools (which is what a voucher program will do) will hurt public education even more.  This idea that public education will mysteriously get better when forced to live on less money is the same type of reasoning that would say to help a poor family who is having trouble making ends meet, we should just take away some of the money.

  • While I agree that private schools typically cost less and out-perform public schools, I feel they are able to do so because a) they can be selective with which students they admit, and b) they are not being crushed under unfunded, state mandated programs that deal with disabled, ESL, or underprivileged students.  Private schools don’t have some superior formula for education or finances that public schools are lacking.  They are just not as inclusive, and that’s not likely to change with the voucher system.  So I’d rather work to fix our public schools, and not strip their funding with a program like this.

  • “Friendly Atheists” should already know that. But thanks.

    (Anna,you’re not answering my mail.)

  • I’m assuming most do, but some people might have more positive impressions of religious schools, perhaps associating them with Catholic or mainline Protestant denominations.

    By the way, you sent me mail? Where did you send it? I don’t have my e-mail address listed here.

  • Deven Kale

    But it’s not just one man, or even one family, that’s involved here. It’s public money, which means every taxpayer in the state is, in some way, “Compelled to … support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent,” which is most definitely against the constitution.

      Just because the money is given to an individual before it’s given to the school makes no difference. I think there’s good reason to believe that the school is the only group that can cash in the vouchers which means that, even though the voucher is given to that individual by the government, the school itself is actually receiving public funds from the government.

      In fact, I would have to say that the only way I can think of where this would be constitutional is if the money for that kids schooling was given directly to the family of the child. I don’t think anybody would actually be advocating for that though, since the potential for misuse of that money by selfish, corrupt, and/or greedy parents is well documented.

  • Here’s another thing to add to Tracy’s comment –

    The current private schools also have to present themselves as a better option to public schools to those parents of the selective students.  (Hense, they compete with the public schools.)  But that’s not going to necessarily be the case if you further weaken the public school system.  What you will likely have is, as Tracy suggested, the exclusive schools for the rich kids doing just as well as they do now because they’ll have to compete with other private schools, but you’ll also get lower quality private schools for the poorer families – schools that will be no better than the public schools of today.  And worst of all, there will be more segregation of rich and poor (and thus also white and colored) children.

  • Just kidding. But we both live in Florida and—


  • Anonymous


    In pint of fact, if a school-voucher program is initiated but specifically disallows use of vouchers for tuition at sectarian schools, then students who attend sectarian schools would have a cognizable claim that their federal First Amendment rights have been curtailed — i.e., the right to freely exercise their religion.  

    Federal courts have generally held that as a matter of constitutional law, government may not enact policies that either grant religion any special favor or inhibit the free exercise thereof.  

    Pennsylvania courts have held that this language, and indeed all religious-freedom language in the state constitution, creates rights that align with the federal First Amendment.  

    Apply this precedent correctly, and you will find that any state-sponsored school-voucher program must be blind with respect to the sectarian character of the institution that receives those monies.

    I am aware of case law that seemingly speaks the other way; the chief precedent I am aware of lies in Washington state, where churches have far more limited access to state resources.  There, however, the state constitution contains provisions far stronger than those assayed by the federal First Amendment.

    The federal court system has recognized the constitutionality of that arrangement, and the state courts have applied a more rigorous standard to this sort of program.  

    Deven, I don’t like government money of any sort going to religious institutions; I find the commingling of church and state to be inimical to both.  

    However, I must read the Constitution and two hundred years of precedent for what they are, not what I wish they are.   

  • Anonymous

    Additionally, I would direct you to read Zelman v. Simmons-Harris for more background on the issue.  It does not go as far as I do in articulating a free-exercise interest in allowing students to use the funds for a religious school.  However, the case does affirmatively establish the constitutionality of a voucher program in which students may attend a sectarian school.

  • Brett Hansen

    I know what you mean!  It’s hard to get theists to support secular causes (which are in their best interests) when even atheists keep getting confused and thinking “atheist” and “secular” are synonyms.

  • Andrew Morgan

    Sure, fine, we can have a debate about whether or not parents who have money can buy a better education for their kids, but that seems like a separate question than church and state.

  • Eva Apple Eater

    Before you start something – anything – it’s a good idea to look at other states or countries with experience. I live in a country with a similar school voucher system: Sweden.

    The consequences have been (so far);
    -closed public schools because they can’t get enough students any more,
    -teachers being pressured into giving students far better grades than they deserve, in an effort to make the school more popular,
    -extreme religious schools not teaching about other religions or treating the students in a way that’s against Swedish law,
    -private schools going bankrupt mid-semester, leaving the city with the problem of “where do we put 300 students suddenly”,
    -increased segregation, if the private schools get enough students they can deny immigrants, disabled and other children who need extra assistance or help, leaving that cost to the public schools who are not allowed to turn anyone down,
    – private, big corporation schools saving money on staff or school books and instead sending the tax-money out of the country,
    – and finally, a VERY expensive control system.

    I didn’t have the choice between private or public school for my son, the only ones close were private. One Christian, one Muslim and one secular  school. I chose the secular school. So far, I’m very happy with the school, but not with the system.

    I know that USA and Sweden are two very different countries. I just want you to study the consequences, not only for your own child but for every child and the entire community, before you make a choice. It is smart to learn from others mistakes rather than make them all by yourself.

  • Tax money (collected from citizens of diverse religious backgrounds) should never go to an organization promoting one religion.  Or even to one promoting the idea that there are no gods.

    This shouldn’t even remotely be an issue.  Even if it were financially feasible to set up schools for each and every student religion in town, I suspect Brown v. Board of Education would prevent “separate but equal” schools.

    Having taught at both charter and regular schools, I can confirm that a large reason charter schools do well is by expelling students who do not do well.  The charter high school I worked at regularly enrolled twice as many Freshmen as they had in other grades, with the plan of sending about half back to their “home schools” if early testing did not indicate they would do well on state tests.  They also tended to not accept students who had expensive American Disabilities Act needs.  

    Hardly a fix for the entire school system.

  • Garren openID

    Well, the analogy would have to include not only taking some money out of the family budget, but also removing one of the children from the family’s financial burden.

    There may well be good reasons overall not to allow voucher programs. My main point here has been that the Establishment Clause is not one of them. And  atheists who claim otherwise are playing into religious persecution fantasies, which doesn’t let the conversation move onto other reasons for or against vouchers.

  • Donalbain

    Private schools are, on average cheaper to run because they do not have to teach everyone. They do not have to take the child who requires one to one tuition. They do not have to teach the child who is in prison. They do not have to educate the child who is in long term hospital. They do not have to educate the child who simply takes more work to teach than others.
    All of those children are taught by the public education system and drag up the cost of that system. If the state abdicates its responsibilty to educate children, then children will suffer.

  • Charles Black

    I suppose it makes sense that aspiring theocrats like Rick Perry would want religion introduced into schools from K-12 so that they have unquestioning idiots who follow their every order, even if it includes nuclear weapons against the “infidels”.

  • Crblomquist

    This isn’t telling the whole picture.  They also cost less because they tend to have fewer bells and whistles, because they pay their teachers far less, and because they have far less bureaucratic red tape to deal with.  

  • Crblomquist

    Well, religious schools SHOULD teach according to their faith, which is their raison d’etre.  Parents who don’t want that would obviously need to choose something else, not protest against the school’s creed.  I don’t think I am in support of vouchers, myself, but not because of my sympathies with the public schools so much as because of my concerns for the private schools.  It seems to me that the private schools would be harmed, as well as the public schools, because they would be pressured to change their religious instructions–water it down or make it more p.c. or something not in line with their true mission.    I’ve heard of that happening at the university level for schools that accept state funding, and I suspect it would happen at the grade school level, too.

  • Religious schools should be allowed to teach whatever they want. The problem is when the government gets involved. It’s not acceptable to me to have the government pay for parents to send their children to schools that teach things like young earth creationism, false history, and religious supremacy. 

  • Ah, thanks for clearing that up!

  • Sulris Campbell

    if the vouchers allow kids to go to any public school it doesnt descriminate against any religous or non-religous people.  dont think of it as the money taken by the goverment being given to a religous orginazation.  think about it as a person not using a public resource getting a refund for not using that recourse and then doing what they please with their money.

  • Parse

    That’s really not how public services work.  If that were the case, then I’d want a refund for paving roads I don’t drive on, parks I don’t visit, social services I don’t need.  After all, I’m not using those resources, so why can’t I do what I please with my money?  

  • Paul Crider

    I actually think it’s pretty clear cut that a voucher system is A-OK with the Establishment Clause. It’s money in a backpack, not an endorsement of any particular religion or ideology.

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