Political Tsunamis

Edd Doerr

It has been nearly a decade since fanatics hijacked planes and crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. As this is being written, multiple political tsunamis guided by other fanatics are engulfing the U.S. Capitol and many state capitols. This column has space for dealing with only two of them: those aimed at forcing all Americans to support faith-based private schools and those imposing faith-based restrictions on women with problem pregnancies who seek abortions.

The School-Voucher Tsunami

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have introduced legislation to revive the school-voucher plan that was originally imposed on the District of Columbia by the Bush/GOP machine in the early 2000s but was ended by Congress in 2010. This plan is a warm-up for a massive nationwide voucher push. Meanwhile, many state legislatures (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, and Florida, for example) are facing similar battles.

Let me lay out the case against these plans to divert public funds to faith-based and other private schools. These objections are numbered, but they are not in any particular order and are applicable across the country.

  1. How can lawmakers even think about diverting public funds to nonpublic schools when our debt crises afflict all levels of government from Congress to states, counties, cities, and school boards?
  2. The District of Columbia voucher plan is opposed by the city’s elected mayor and elected congressional delegate.
  3. District of Columbia voters defeated a similar school-voucher plan in the 1980s by the mega-landslide margin of 89 percent to 11 percent. How dare Republicans in Congress want to override the clear wishes of the people in our nation’s “last colony” and make all American taxpayers foot the bill.
  4. Tens of millions of voters from coast to coast have rejected vouchers or their variants in more than two dozen statewide referenda by, on an average, a landslide margin of 2 to 1.
  5. Most of the voters who have rejected vouchers live in states whose constitutions prohibit tax aid to religious institutions.
  6. School vouchers would separate children along religious, social-class, ethnic, ideological, and ability-level lines, among others.
  7. The overwhelming majority of nonpublic schools to be aided with vouchers are religious (Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox Jewish, Islamic, and the like), nearly all of which indoctrinate children with an often malignant patriarchalism. Many of them, be they evangelical, Orthodox Jewish, or Islamic, promote antiscience creationism and climate-change denial.
  8. Vouchers are part of a nationwide campaign to weaken or wreck public education.
  9. Vouchers are aimed at wrecking teacher unions and downgrading the teaching profession to something resembling migrant labor.
  10. Vouchers would subject teachers to religious, ideological, and lifestyle tests.
  11. Vouchers would force all taxpayers to contribute involuntarily to the support of sectarian institutions, in violation of every citizen’s right to support only the religious institutions of their free choice.
  12. Vouchers violate the principle of separation of church and state found in the United States and most state constitutions.
  13. Vouchers have been tried in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., and have not been found to improve education.
  14. Schools supported or aided by vouchers do not have to play by the same reasonable rules as those applicable to public schools, and they often resist being studied by experts.
  15. Because public and nonpublic school attendance areas are rarely coterminous, providing transportation to a growing multiplicity of public and nonpublic schools would increasingly choke our traffic arteries with big yellow buses and increase usage of fossil fuels.

That is the case against the diversion of public funds to nonpublic schools. I would urge readers to express their views on the matter to their federal and state lawmakers.

I write, incidentally, as a graduate of faith-based elementary and secondary schools and as a former teacher in both public and private schools.

The Anti-Choice Tsunami

Pretty much the same federal and state lawmakers who are pushing school vouchers are also working to impose faith-based restrictions on women’s reproductive choices. They haven’t the strength to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized (not created) the constitutional privacy right of women to terminate problem pregnancies, but they are seeking to erect every possible barrier to a woman’s right to follow her conscience and judgment on such matters. If women were proportionally represented in Congress and state legislatures, the problem would go away.

Some women choose to end pregnancies that result from rape, contraceptive failure, or ignorance. Some women choose to end pregnancies due to a medical threat to a woman’s (or young girl’s) life or health, changed life circumstances such as spousal death, abandonment, plunge into poverty, or the threat of serious fetal abnormalities. There are now about 1.2 million abortions performed per year in the United States, and comparable rates are evident elsewhere in the world. About 90 percent of abortions in the United States are performed before thirteen weeks’ gestation.

Opposition to reproductive choice is almost entirely faith-based, stemming from the notion that human personhood begins at conception, a strange notion given that the Judeo-Christian Bible does not condemn abortion and, indeed, regards a fetus as part of the mother until birth. Faith-based opposition to abortion is odd considering most religious folk regard persons as “created in the image of God,” which, if it means anything, must refer not to flesh and bone and DNA but to the “godlike” capacity for consciousness and will.

Here we might note what science has to say on the subject. During the Supreme Court’s 1988 term, I engineered an amicus curiae brief in an abortion rights case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, signed by twelve Nobel laureates and 155 other distinguished scientists. Among the points it made: “The neurobiological data indicate that the fetus lacks the physical capacity for the neurological activities we associate with human thought until sometime after 28 weeks of gestation.” As Isaac Asimov put it, a person can do without or replace many different organ systems, but what makes one a human person is a functioning cerebral cortex. Faith-based efforts to ascribe personhood to pre–twenty-eight-week fetuses and embryos are more “materialistic” than the pro-choice views of humanists.

We should note that a very substantial part of the religious community is pro-choice, typified by the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish denominations and groups in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, on whose board I was pleased to represent a humanist organization for thirty years.

The school voucher and anti-choice tsunamis can be stopped, but it will take a lot of effort and sweat.

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.


It has been nearly a decade since fanatics hijacked planes and crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. As this is being written, multiple political tsunamis guided by other fanatics are engulfing the U.S. Capitol and many state capitols. This column has space for dealing with only two of them: those aimed at forcing …

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