Taxes for Faith-based Schools?

Edd Doerr

Like the Terminator, they keep coming back, and they’re hard to stop. Like Dracula, they want our blood—er, taxes. “They” are the folks who have been campaigning for more than forty years to have all of us pay for faith-based private schools with our federal and/or state taxes through the mechanisms of tax-funded school vouchers or tax credits (tax-code vouchers).

“They” are the operators of faith-based schools, for the most part the Catholic bishops and some fundamentalist church leaders, plus followers of the late economist Milton Friedman (a nontheist yet!).

This year, the supporters of vouchers and similar measures have been active in Congress (Senators Lieberman, Feinstein, Ensign, Byrd, Collins, Voinovich) trying to extend the U.S. Treasury-funded voucher plan foisted on the District of Columbia by the Bush administration and a Republican Congress against the wishes of the D.C. City Council and D.C.’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. Drives to provide vouchers and other forms of aid to church-run schools are under way in Illinois, New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, and other states.

It is important to review the reasons Americans of all persuasions should oppose any form of tax aid for faith-based schools. Millions of Americans have rejected vouchers and similar schemes in over two dozen statewide referenda by an average 2 to 1 margin. They have done it in liberal states like Massachusetts, New York, and California; conservative states like Utah; and states in between like Michigan and Colorado. Analyses of these referenda show that opposition is broad, encompassing Democrats and Republicans; liberals and conservatives; Catholics, Protestants, and Jews; white, black, and brown; and urban, suburban, and rural voters.

Tax aid for faith-based schools (that serve just 10 percent of K-12 students nationwide) violates the letter and the spirit of three-fourths of the state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution, though U.S. Supreme Court conservatives have been moving away from the Court’s historic support for church-state separation.

Because faith-based schools specialize in sectarian indoctrination, tax aid would mean that taxpayers would be subsidizing the fragmentation of our school population and the teaching profession along religious, ideological, and other lines. Protestants would be unlikely to send their children to Catholic or Jewish schools, and so on. Students attending fundamentalist schools would be taught creationism and use fundamentalist textbooks from Bob Jones University and Pensacola Bible College.

In March, Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School (Boulder, Colorado) denied enrollment to the children of a lesbian couple. This could not happen in a public school.

About half of all students are bused to school. Because faith-based schools serve more scattered constituencies rarely coterminous with school districts, busing children to a growing proliferation of faith-based schools would greatly increase already burdensome school transportation systems and worsen traffic nightmares.

Expanding faith-based education at public expense would harm the teaching profession, as private schools rarely have unions and tend to discriminate in hiring.

Our public schools are a mainstay of democracy despite the flaws due to inadequate and inequitably distributed funding, the effects of poverty and its concomitants, and the efforts of fundamentalists to weaken science education. Government funding of faith-based private schooling can in the long run only harm public education, democracy, and religious liberty.

There is no getting around the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin when he wrote more than two centuries ago: “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not do so, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

From Hither and Yon

Americans became more fully aware of Catholic Church child-abuse scandals and cover-ups a decade ago when the problem exploded on newspaper front pages and television screens. An outpouring of books and articles followed, written largely by outraged Catholic authors, clerical as well as lay. The problem is not confined to this country. I have reviewed books on the subject by American, Mexican, and Spanish writers as well as reports by the Irish government. Similar scandals have erupted in Canada, Austria, and now in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy. As a number of Catholic writers have shown, the problem extends back for many centuries.

In March, the noted liberal Catholic theologian Hans Küng (whose credentials to teach Catholic theology were yanked by the Vatican in 1979) told Britain’s leading Catholic paper, The Tablet, that clerical abuse is linked to the Vatican’s millennium-old insistence on clerical celibacy. He blamed the Vatican’s “uptight” views on sex for the child-abuse scandals in the United States, Ireland, and Germany. Küng acknowledged that abuse occurs outside the Catholic Church but believes it is so common within the church because the celibacy rule is “the most important and structurally the most decisive” expression of the Vatican’s uptight attitude toward sex.

Why should non-Catholics and the nonreligious care about all this? Because the Vatican’s “uptightness” about sex has damaged or even ended the lives of uncounted numbers of children, women, and men—people denied access to contraception, abortion, or condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS infection; because the Vatican (the Holy See) is the only religious body in the world influential inside the United Nations; because American politics is distorted by the Catholic bishops’ powerful opposition to contraception and abortion; because American politicians mistakenly assume that the bishops represent most Catholics; because of the bishops’ increasing campaign to get tax support for their shrinking private-school system (down from 5.5 million students in 1965 to fewer than 2.5 million today).

American Catholics are not the problem. They have no problem with contraception and are more pro-choice and more liberal than our Protestant majority, on average. Without the baleful medievalism and malignant patriarchalism of the bishops, American Catholicism would be a much more progressive force in our country today.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


Like the Terminator, they keep coming back, and they’re hard to stop. Like Dracula, they want our blood—er, taxes. “They” are the folks who have been campaigning for more than forty years to have all of us pay for faith-based private schools with our federal and/or state taxes through the mechanisms of tax-funded school vouchers …

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