Florida Showdown Looms

Edd Doerr

On May 11, Education Week published this letter of mine:

The four states discussed in the article “GOP Lawmakers Press Voucher Expansion in States” (April 27, 2011) are among the 39 states whose constitutions prohibit tax aid to religious institutions, but, tellingly, are not among the 14 states (including the District of Columbia) where voters decisively rejected vouchers or their variants by landslide margins in over two dozen statewide referendums.

If voters in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Pennsylvania were allowed to vote on these voucher plans, they would surely knock them down. We can assume that GOP legislators and governors understand this and are reluctant to follow the honorable course and propose state constitutional amendments that would allow voters a voice on these radical attacks on their public schools and their fundamental rights.

Then, on May 13, the Associated Press reported that the Republican-dominated Florida legislature had voted, in a mainly party-line vote (26–10 in the Senate; 81–35 in the House) to approve an amendment to the state constitution, HJR 1471, that would allow the state to use public funds to aid religious private schools and other religious institutions to the degree that the Reagan/Bush appointees to the Supreme Court would allow such aid under the U.S. First Amendment.

The language of HJR 1471 is slick, deceptive, weasely, and designed to fool voters into thinking the amendment supports religious freedom when in reality its purpose is to allow the state to tax all citizens to support religious institutions they would not choose to support voluntarily. While the amendment is ostensibly aimed at blocking a Council for Secular Humanism lawsuit against tax aid for a sectarian prison program, its real aim is to smooth the road for school vouchers. By lumping church-related but essentially secular charities with pervasively sectarian religious private schools, the authors of HJR 1471 seek to bamboozle Florida voters into supporting the diminishing of their religious freedom and the wrecking of their public schools.

This dangerous amendment will be on the ballot in November 2012, along with President Barack Obama’s bid for reelection. Real defenders of religious freedom of all persuasions will need to work together to defeat this insidious attack on our most fundamental liberties.

By the way, there have been thirteen statewide referenda in which tax aid for religious schools through vouchers or tax credits were proposed. All were defeated by an average margin of 67.6 percent to 32.4 percent. There have been six referenda on proposals to remove church-state separation language from state constitutions. These were all defeated by an average margin of 62 percent to 38 percent. (Details may be found on Americans for Religious Liberty’s website, www.arlinc.org.)

November 2012 is not that far off. We need to start working now.

Kane Not Able

Gregory Kane is a columnist for the Washington Examiner, the give-away tabloid that competes with the Washington Times for the coveted status of the most reactionary daily rag published in America.

In his May 19 column, Kane took a wild swat at the Supreme Court’s 1963 8–1 ruling against public-school prayer and Bible reading in Abington School District v. Schempp. Kane asserted that “prayer and Bible reading in public schools hurt no one” and that the ruling is believed by some to have led to a “decline in academics and discipline in public schools since 1968.” He agreed with Schempp’s lone dissenter, Potter Stewart, that the Court erred in applying the First Amendment’s church-state principle.

Kane and other conservatives are unable to get their heads around the following facts: (1) The Schempp ruling was preceded by the 1962 Supreme Court’s 6–1 ruling in Engel v. Vitale, a challenge to government-sponsored prayer in New York public schools brought by parents of various religious persuasions; (2) In 1962, only about half of the nation’s public schools, almost all of which were on the East Coast or located in the states of the former Confederacy, had prayer and Bible reading; (3) Far more people than just humanists were offended by public school prayer and Bible reading; and (4) There is no evidence that the absence of government-sponsored devotions has had adverse effects on public education.

But Kane missed the big picture. Public-school prayer and Bible reading were hallmarks of Protestant hegemony in public education, a hegemony that was extremely offensive to the burgeoning Catholic population in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century on. There being no legal remedy for the Protestant hegemony, Catholic Church officials began a massive program of creating Catholic private schools. By the time of the school-prayer rulings of the early 1960s, Catholic school enrollment had reached about 5.5 million students.

Then things began to change rapidly. We elected our first Catholic president in 1960, one strongly and sincerely dedicated to church-state separation—as my late colleague and co-columnist Paul Blanshard, who had met with John F. Kennedy and Ted Sorensen in the White House to discuss the matter, assured me.

When the Engel ruling came down, Kennedy sided with the Court. Engel and Schempp ended Protestant hegemony in public schools (except perhaps in part of the old Confederacy, where there were few Catholics—or humanists). The Second Vatican Council of 1962–65 let some fresh air into the Catholic Church and elevated (for a great many) conscience over dogma. In 1968, the Vatican issued its blanket condemnation of birth control, against the advice of most of its own experts, and triggered a huge revolt by Catholics against a great deal of what I call the “malignant patriarchalism” of the church hierarchy.

Voilá! Catholic private school enrollment began to decline, from 5.5 million in 1965 to a little over two million today. Studies by Catholic universities for the pro-voucher Nixon administration showed that the decline was due not to economic factors but to “changing parental preferences.”

On the other hand, the end of Protestant hegemony in the public schools, combined with the successes of the civil rights movement, led to the start of the growing fundamentalist private-school movement, the homeschooling movement, and growing evangelical support for school vouchers. At the same time, Catholic movement away from sectarian schools led to Catholic voter opposition to diversion of public funds to religious schools.

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.


On May 11, Education Week published this letter of mine: The four states discussed in the article “GOP Lawmakers Press Voucher Expansion in States” (April 27, 2011) are among the 39 states whose constitutions prohibit tax aid to religious institutions, but, tellingly, are not among the 14 states (including the District of Columbia) where voters …

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