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EDITORIAL: Trump's education pick defends liberty

By: Gazette Editorial Board
November 27, 2016 Updated: November 28, 2016 at 8:00 am

President-elect Donald Trump inadvertently threatened religious liberty, then nominated a secretary of education who will defend and expand it.

Americans discourage discrimination based on race, religion and creed. That's why so many cringe at Trump's suggestion to ban Muslim immigrants or subject them to heightened scrutiny. Trump's pragmatic idea conflicts with a wide-scale philosophical embrace of religious liberty.

Government should place no value on religion. It should neither encourage nor discourage religious beliefs, never punishing or rewarding them. It should not favor one religion over another. It should treat secular entities the same as their religious counterparts.

The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law "respecting an establishment of religion, or abridging the free exercise thereof . "

Government subsidizes foster homes run by Catholics, Muslims, Wiccans, atheists, etc. It contributes to all varieties of charity by channeling tax dollars through religious and secular nonprofits. It funds religious and anti-religious art. In blindness to religion, government obeys the First Amendment.

Betsy DeVos, whom Trump chose to head the Department of Education, ranks among the country's more outspoken advocates of the school choice movement. School choice advocates want more schools for parents to choose from. Competition among schools causes a race to the top, as low-performance schools perish and high-performance schools succeed.

School choice typically involves allowing open enrollment and cooperatives in which parents are able to establish charter schools with niche curriculum. In school choice states, such as Colorado, education money follows each student.

Vouchers comprise another component of school choice. Education funds can be converted into vouchers or "scholarships," giving low-income or middle-class parents the opportunity to pay tuition at private school.

Good arguments are made for and against vouchers. Egalitarians say vouchers give underprivileged children opportunities more similar to those of their wealthy peers. Critics argue vouchers divert money from public schools at an expense of children whose parents or guardians don't use them.

Most voucher programs discriminate on a basis of religion, which makes no sense and seems prima facie illegal.

DeVos, in fighting for more school choice, has advocated elimination of religion-based discrimination in voucher programs. If vouchers pay tuition at secular schools, they should work at accredited Muslim schools. Or Jewish schools, Hindu schools, Christian schools and more. Government should have no regard for an establishment of religion and should not interfere with free exercise of religion, including religion-based education.

To negate a voucher because a school displays the star and crescent moon is for government to discriminate on a basis of religion. The Supreme Court has already confirmed what the First Amendment makes clear, by ruling in favor of vouchers for religious schools with its 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The ruling liberated underprivileged children in Cleveland to use public vouchers to attend private schools with religious affiliations.

Colorado and 37 other states have state constitutional "Blaine Amendments," advocated long ago by the Ku Klux Klan. Each prevents vouchers from funding tuition at sectarian schools. They demand discrimination on a basis of religion. They are as outdated as 30 state constitutional amendments — including Colorado's Amendment 43 — that forbade same-sex marriage. Those state laws infringed freedom of association, just as Blaine Amendments flaunt the Constitution's establishment and free exercise clauses.

In addition to appointing DeVos, a crusader against unlawful discrimination, Trump will soon nominate a new justice to the Supreme Court of the United States. With those decisions, Blaine Amendments are doomed. State-mandated religious discrimination will disappear as another ugly remnant of our past.

The gazette editorial board

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