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OUR VIEW: Appeals Court upholds freedom of choice for accredited private or religious schools

By: Ed
March 3, 2013
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Institutional discrimination against poor and religious families in Douglas County has ended, at least for now.

The Colorado Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling Thursday, which means a moratorium against using scholarships at private religious schools is no longer in force. The Douglas County school district is free to re-engage its Choice Scholarship Program, which offers $4,575 in state funds to each of up to 500 students to help pay for tuition at any accredited private schools their parents or guardians choose. That includes religious schools.

The program, possibly the first of its kind in the country, came under attack by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit that resulted in a low court’s moratorium.

Separation of church and state means the state has no say in religion. It means the state leaves individuals alone to worship as they please and to educate their children as they please — even to indoctrinate them in religious beliefs that may seem strange to those with differing views. It means the state has no opinion about Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Scientology or any other form of organized or individual belief.

The scholarship program converts state money into vouchers for the sole purpose of allowing parents to make educational choices with a portion of their tax dollars that’s earmarked for educating their kids. Good arguments can be made for and against the merits of voucher systems. That’s not what this is about.

If a district offers vouchers, in order to create more educational choice, the vouchers should work at any school that meets state-minimum educational standards. The First Amendment prohibits governments from imposing religion on individuals. It equally prohibits governments from interfering with an individual’s right to exercise religion and to instill religious beliefs in dependent children.

It is hard to imagine how state money, distributed as “scholarships” or “vouchers,” can come with a mandate that says “no religious schools.” If the money is turned over to parents, in order to empower them with choice, the imposition of a religious restriction smacks of interference with the free exercise of religion. It is bold-faced religious discrimination.

It is also an elitist dictate that creates yet another obstacle for the lower middle class and the poor. The wealthy can send their children to whatever schools they choose, and no one should begrudge them this luxury. It’s mostly good to rich. It means the ability to pay for education in taxes without the need for a direct return of any portion of the money to help with private tuition.

Poor children and their parents don’t have that option. If the best school is run by a synagogue, a mosque or a church, the economically disadvantaged student can’t enroll if the state discriminates on a basis of religion.

Americans for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union are wise to guard religious liberty by demanding enforcement of the First Amendment.

We can never tolerate government imposition of religious beliefs or favoritism toward one religion over others. But that’s not what either group is fighting by opposing this scholarship program.

Spending a state-funded scholarship at a Jewish day school does not force Judaism on the collective any more than a scholarship spent at a school of math and science forces Big Bang theory on the masses. That may explain why the appellate judges said plaintiffs could prove no injury caused by the scholarship program.

Some parents want religion included in a child’s education; others do not. Those who choose religious schools should not suffer a massive tax penalty in a country founded on religious liberty for pursuing the educational choices they believe serve their children best.

The attack on Douglas County’s innovative new program is an anti-intellectual challenge to religious liberty and academic freedom. It’s also a war on the poor by two organizations that wear egalitarianism on their sleeves.

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