Arizona’s Big Win for Public Schools, Church-State Separation

Edd Doerr

On November 6, Arizonans voted sixty-five to thirty-five to crush an effort to expand the state’s tax-credit voucher plan to divert public funds to mostly church-run private schools. That makes it the thirtieth (!) state referendum between 1966 and 2018, from Massachusetts to California and from Florida to Alaska, in which millions of voters have shot down every effort, large or small, to compel taxpayers to support private schools by an average of two to one.

This landslide Arizona vote was clearly a serious setback for President Donald J. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and large numbers of federal and state Republican lawmakers.

These victories are important because diverting public funds to private schools (of which over 85 percent are sectarian indoctrination institutions that denigrate women’s rights and often science) is an attack on the religiously neutral public schools that serve 90 percent of the kids in the United States—and on the principle of church-state separation that safeguards everyone’s religious liberty. Further, tax support for the more than two dozen different brands of private schools (Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, evangelical, Methodist, Presbyterian, Jewish, Muslim, and so on) would fragment our school population along religious, ideological, ethnic, socioeconomic, and other lines while increasing school costs overall.

Within hours of the voucher defeat, the Goldwater Institute and the extremist right-wing American Federation for Children (AFC) announced that they would “double down” on efforts to get the Arizona legislature to push vouchers again. Now get this: The AFC was headed by none other than billionaire heiress DeVos until a few days after Trump was “elected” in 2016! What outrageous contempt for the voters, for the public schools, for religious liberty, and for at least the spirit of Article 2, Section 12 of the Arizona constitution, which states that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.”

Voucher vultures such as DeVos, Trump, Pence, and far too many Republican lawmakers regularly sneer at the wisdom of Madison, Jefferson, and other Founders who wrote church-state separation into our Constitution in the 1780s. They all need to be reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s wisdom when he wrote: “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its adherents are obliged to call for help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

Meanwhile, in Europe

On November 5, Washington Post foreign affairs correspondent Rick Noack published a report on the enormously popular new film in Poland Kler (Polish for clergy) titled “A Blockbuster Polish Movie about Abusive Priests Triggers New Accusations.” With the online version of the article, Noack ran a chart showing the percentages by which people in various countries in western and eastern Europe favor church-state separation. While I have not been able to track down the source of the poll, the results seem reasonable. Here they are:

Sweden, 80;
Finland, 77;
Denmark, 76;
Czech Republic, 75;
Spain, 75;
Belgium, 72;
Slovakia, 72;
Poland, 70;
Croatia, 69;
Estonia, 68;
France, 68;
Netherlands, 68;
Hungary, 67;
Greece, 62.

Along with that poll Noack ran a Pew Research study from 2015–2017 on the percentages of persons identified as Catholics in a number of European countries:

Poland, 87;
Croatia, 84;
Italy, 78;
Portugal, 77;
Austria, 75;
Lithuania, 75;
Ireland, 75;
Slovakia, 63;
France, 60;
Spain, 60;
Hungary, 56;
Switzerland, 55;
Belgium, 49;
Germany, 43.

Of course, these figures tell nothing about anyone’s beliefs, church attendance, or political opinions.

And in Spain

On October 26, Katholiek Neiwsblad, a Catholic weekly in the Netherlands, reported that Spain’s moderate Socialist government plans to inventory all of the Catholic Church’s real estate in the country. Spain’s Catholic bishops “vehemently” oppose the plan, fearing a possible “clandestine confiscation” and a revival of “the old spirit of anti-clericalism.” María García of the Observatory for Religious and Conscience Freedom claims that there has been an increase of unspecified violations of religious freedom in Spain and that the Church property inventory is part of a “campaign to drive religion out of the public domain.”

Anyone at all familiar with the history of Spain will recall the expulsion or forced conversion of Jews and Muslims there after 1492, the brutality of the Inquisition, the Church’s long dominance in the country, its siding with political conservatives, and the fact that civil wars in Spain were often accompanied by anger and violence directed at the Church. Note also that according to Rick Noack (above), 75 percent of Spaniards favor church-state separation. This could get very interesting. Stay tuned.

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 November 6, Arizonans voted sixty-five to thirty-five to crush an effort to expand the state’s tax-credit voucher plan to divert public funds to mostly church-run private schools. That makes it the thirtieth (!) state referendum between 1966 and 2018, from Massachusetts to California and from Florida to Alaska, in which millions of voters have …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.